When people talk about about energy efficiency, it usually involves using less or upgrading to more efficient equipment, from industrial motors to televisions.

But there is a missed opportunity for far more savings, according to a new report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The study focuses on intelligent efficiency, which the authors define as a systems-based, holistic approach to energy savings that is enabled by information and communication technology.

Approaching efficiency at a systems level could allow the U.S. to reduce its overall energy use by 12 percent to 22 percent and save tens of billions of dollars, according to the ACEEE. All of the technology needed to reap these savings is already readily available; however, barriers remain, including a lack of both awareness and upfront capital.

One of the most important takeaways is that device-level efficiency, while critical, is not enough. For products that have been meeting efficiency standards for decades, there are diminishing returns. System optimization is simply the next step.

Motors are a perfect example. Motor systems consume half of the electricity produced in the U.S. Standards over the past years have pushed motors to have efficiencies of 90 percent to 95 percent. A more efficient motor could save 1 percent to 3 percent in energy; however, optimizing a motorized system could save more than 20 percent. 

In manufacturing, sensors and controls could save 4 percent to 17 percent of the total energy used, according to ACEEE.  The study looked at one facility owned by Air Liquide, which supplies cryogenic liquids and industrial gases. The plant first started using software to track and optimize its performance based on production volume, reliability, energy cost and emissions.

Operators received the data every 15 minutes and also looked at shifting prices in the electricity market. But implementing that open-loop system was just the first step.

The company then closed the loop between the data feedback system and boiler control system, with automated adjustments every 15 to 30 minutes. The energy savings are estimated to pay for the system in less than one year.

Although manufacturing is ripe for optimization that could yield huge energy savings, commercial and institutional buildings, and even homes, can also benefit from automation.

The move toward automated systems is apparent in companies serving all of those sectors. ACEEE highlighted Schneider Electric’s production energy optimization for industrial and mining sectors, which allows energy analytics to be run over various production indicators to maximize the system.

A combination of efficiency upgrades and data analytics is quickly becoming big business. Building controls giants like HoneywellSiemensJohnson Controls and Schneider Electric are all acquiring other companies or adding to their portfolios to help businesses understand and streamline their operations to save money.

Many startups such as SCIEnergySkyFoundryBuildingIQ, Retroficiency, and Powerit Solutions, are in the mix too, focusing on retrofits, data analytics, or a combination of both to help commercial and industrial companies interface with the smart grid and make their operations more efficient.

On the residential side, companies like AlertMe, EcoFactor, ThinkEco, Tendril, EnergyHub and many others are trying to leverage analytics to not only give insight into energy use, but companies like EcoFactor are offering automated services that can optimize heating and cooling within set parameters.

The ACEEE report was slightly short on specifics, but it shows that full system optimization, whether a manufacturing facility or a home, is the next frontier for efficiency. “This is not your father’s device-driven approach to energy efficiency,” said R. Neal Elliot, associate director for research at ACEEE. “Through intelligent efficiency, utility systems, interconnected cities, transportation systems, and communications networks can become the new normal.”