U.S. utilities spent $4.8 billion on energy efficiency programs and initiatives in 2012, and that funding is set to double by 2025. That’s a lot of money driving utility customers to identify and eliminate waste and to invest in their own energy-savvy systems.
But is that money being spent efficiently? Retroficiency, the Boston-based startup that’s delivering “virtual” efficiency audits to buildings and property portfolios around the country, says its new Building Efficiency Intelligence (BEI) platform can help answer that question -- and deliver a positive result.
Retroficiency officially launched its BEI platform this week as a commercially available, cloud-based software product. But according to its Monday announcement, the company’s already been using the platform for some time with some of its largest customers, which include utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric, Consolidated Edison and National Grid, and program administrators like CLEAResult and Nexant.
In simple terms, BEI ties together Retroficiency’s existing analytics software capabilities, now in use at large commercial buildings, small businesses, multifamily housing and military bases, and “puts an even bigger and more enhanced wrapper around those to support the entire process of commercial efficiency programs,” Mike Kaplan, vice president of marketing, said in an interview.
Traditional efficiency programs have focused on incentives for replacing lights and upgrading HVAC systems, where the before-after benefits are easily measurable: just subtract the new device’s energy consumption from the old one’s, and count the difference as energy saved. Other programs offer low-cost building energy audits and rebates for retrofits, which are meant to link customers’ imperatives to save money with utilities’ broader efficiency goals.
But going beyond the “low-hanging fruit” opportunities that have driven the lion’s share of efficiency gains of the past decade or so requires a more sophisticated approach to getting the most bang out of each efficiency buck, Kaplan said. That ranges from designing the program’s fundamental rules, to following through to assure that savings persist for years into the future, he noted.
“The big challenge in the industry of doing this in a more scalable way, particularly on the commercial side, is all the complexity in the data and the stakeholders involved,” he said. On the data side, Retroficiency is using metering data ranging from monthly reads from legacy meters, to fifteen-minute reads from smart meters, as well as its proprietary sources of property data.
“We’re working with lots of data from a lot of different sources, coming in at different periods, and at different qualities,” said Bryan Long, Retroficiency’s CTO and co-founder. At the same time, “another trend we’re seeing on the data side is that utilities are starting to buy, or have internal data, on their own customers,” he added.
“A utility wants to make a decision about sales and marketing across those customers,” he said, and “it’s ideal to marry that kind of non-energy-related data to our analytics” to help them do that. For example, Retroficiency can correlate energy-derived data points, like which customers have the greatest savings potential, to “firmographic” data that helps indicate which customers have the highest propensity to act when they receive different incentive or rebate offers. “We had to do some re-architecting there, to consume this and analyze it,” he said.
A similar challenge emerges when data from different stakeholders to the process is taken into account, he noted. Utilities and third-party administrators of efficiency funds, the companies hired to implement them, the network of contractors that do the actual work, and of course, the customers participating in the programs, all have different needs, and “you have to message it differently for each of those stakeholders,” he said.
Typically these relationships are managed with software that’s not linked to the deep energy analytics side of utility operations, he noted. Retroficiency has built a “data-agnostic” platform meant to combine dissimilar data sets of this kind, as well as the cloud-based platform to allow different parties to access its analytics and reports, and have them delivered via mail, email, text or web services, he said.
Retroficiency isn’t the only company delivering “virtual audit” technology, of course. Startups like FirstFuel, Lucid, Gridium, SPARC (and its recent spinout, 5twenty), and others are combining utility or customer-provided metering data with both public and proprietary sources of data on property characteristics and usage, to help rank buildings on efficiency potential, direct investments to optimize returns, and prove savings based on evolving measurement and verification (M&V) standards.
Other companies are also focusing on the utility-customer efficiency program process that Retroficiency is targeting, including FirstFuel, EnergySavvy and Pulse Energy on the commercial side, and Opower and Tendril on the residential side. The lines between commercial and residential are starting to blur, however, as Opower’s recent partnership with FirstFuel indicates. Small businesses in particular must be treated more like homes than like big commercial buildings in terms of tailoring a program to meet their needs.
Retroficiency has raised $3.3 million in VC from Point Judith Capital and angel investors, and Kaplan said the company is “approaching 3 billion square feet” of property space it’s analyzing for more than twenty utility programs. We’ve been tracking a lot of investment into the intelligent buildings space over the past few years, as well as an increasingly tangled web of partnerships between software startups like Retroficiency and the program administrators, energy services providers and other companies that provide them channels to market.
There’s certainly a huge opportunity out there. A study from Deutsche Bank and the Rockefeller Institute found a $279 billion investment opportunity in U.S. commercial building efficiency over the next decade, with the potential to return more than $1 trillion, or nearly four times the investment, over that time.