Using Real-Time Data for Deep Energy Retrofits: The Next Phase in Energy Efficiency Policies

December 5, 2019

In 2018, global average atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached 407.4 ppm – a level that has not been reached in more than 3 million years when average global temperatures were up to 5º F warmer and sea level was between 50 and 80 feet higher. With the 20 warmest years on record happening during the last 22 years, the trend of a warming planet is clear, and it is little wonder why cities are increasingly focusing their climate policies on buildings as a way to do something about it. Most recently, New York City approved Local Law 97, an ordinance setting emissions limits for buildings, in recognition of the fact that nearly 70 percent of citywide emissions come from the city’s building stock.


For years, cities have realized that addressing climate change requires changing the way that our buildings are designed, constructed, and operated. Accordingly, commercial building owners and managers are increasingly asked to meet energy benchmarking, audit, retro-commissioning, and retrofit requirements. At BuildingOS, our mission is to empower building owners and managers to boost efficiency and reduce costs through our intuitive building energy management platform. For this reason, we would like to share how real-time data analytics is critical to modern energy management practices and the successful implementation of deep energy retrofits – a likely next phase in energy efficiency policy that state and local governments will take to meet their climate action goals.

What Is a Deep Energy Retrofit?

Deep energy retrofits (DERs) consist of a project or collection of projects that are planned and implemented using a whole-building approach with the goal of significantly improving the efficiency of a building – in some cases by as much as 50 percent. Unlike traditional retrofits, which typically focus on improving efficiency by upgrading a single building system(s) such as HVAC or lighting. DERs also involve multiple stakeholders in a holistic evaluation of the buildings’ performance and design in order to understand the interdependency of different systems and to coordinate and prioritize projects accordingly. This holistic approach considers linkages between a buildings’ size, use, location, local weather patterns, occupants, envelope, mechanical and lighting systems, and more to determine how best to optimize energy reduction.

Significantly, there is no ‘one size fits all’ deep energy retrofit. The project(s) that are implemented to achieve energy savings range from weatherization and infiltration reduction to systems retro-commissioning and upgrades. Naturally, a large amount of data is required in the planning and implementation of DERs. Because building performance is ever-changing and DER evaluations are inherently iterative, making easy access to real-time building systems data critical for success. Typical data modeling conducted in the planning of DERs includes analysis of:

  • whole-building baseload
  • building systems baseload
  • heating and cooling profile
  • energy life cycle cost savings

Once implemented, a project measurement and verification analysis is also performed in order to ensure that DER goals, such as energy reductions and ROI, are met. Now more than ever before, Energy Management Information Systems, can be leveraged to optimize the DER process.

The Opportunity Behind Deep Energy Retrofits

Buildings account for nearly 40 percent of all energy and 70 percent of all electricity consumed in the United States. The size, age, and primary use of a building are key influencers in the amount of energy consumed, and in many cases, the older the building, the less efficiently it operates. With the average commercial building in the US just under 50 years old, DERs offer a significant opportunity to reduce harmful emissions contributing to climate change. A 2019 report published by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), concludes that energy efficiency retrofits alone could reduce annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 148 million metric tons. Of course, DERs provide additional benefits including considerable cost savings and the improved health and well-being of building occupants. A 2012 building energy retrofit study conducted by Deutsche Bank and The Rockefeller Foundation, found that a 30 percent improvement in energy efficiency of the nation’s pre-1980 building stock could yield $1 trillion dollars in energy savings over a ten year period!

Six Phases of a Deep Energy Retrofit

Although there is no one size fits all deep energy retrofit, the DER process can typically be broken down into six phases.

Phase One: Stakeholder Engagement

During this initial phase, the DER team is assembled and roles and responsibilities are outlined. Involving relevant stakeholders early and often will help ensure that you have the input and buy-in from the team responsible for making your DER a success.

Stakeholders may include the building owner, building management team, engineering team, architects, sustainability managers and occupants.

Phase Two: Building Evaluation

Here, building performance is analyzed to understand energy efficiency opportunities. Typically, building performance evaluations are on-going and benefit from access to real-time energy and building systems data.

Phase Three: Goal Setting

During this phase, the DER team sets energy reduction targets based on a data-driven building evaluation process.

Phase Four: Scope Setting

Here, the DER team evaluates multiple scenarios to determine what projects will be implemented and when. In addition to evaluating what is technically feasible, the DER team typically conducts a detailed capital cost analysis.

Phase Five: Project Implementation

This phase includes the physical implementation of DER projects including construction and commissioning.

Phase Six: Measurement and Verification

Finally, project performance and savings are evaluated. Significantly, the DER measurement and verification should only take place after the project has been constructed, commissioned, occupied, and reached a state of steady operation.

Seven Modern Energy Management Practices to Help Plan and Implement Deep Energy Retrofits

1. Centralize utility and building systems data using an Energy Management Information System (EMIS) like BuildingOS. This allows the DER team to easily visualize, analyze, and share the data that forms the basis for goal setting, scope setting, as well as project measurement and verification.

2. Implement advanced energy submetering to understand the energy-use breakdown of your building spaces and systems and to identify and prioritize savings opportunities. Energy Management Information Systems can also leverage submetering data to monitor ongoing energy consumption and catch unplanned energy spikes before they spiral out of control.

3. Analyze energy data to understand your building’s energy-use breakdown, base load, heating and cooling profile, and to monitor performance over time. Regardless of what system(s) you use, understanding your building is key to making and maintaining improvements. The following metrics are a good place to start:

    • Energy-use breakdown: This metric tells you how much energy is consumed by building space and/or system. Energy-use breakdown can be compared against historical data or industry standards to identify opportunities for improvement. For example, HVAC systems typically account for 40 percent of electricity consumption in office buildings. If your energy-use breakdown shows your HVAC at a higher percentage, this could signal an equipment malfunction or potentially a deteriorating asset. Most EMIS’s automatically calculate and track this metric.
    • Base Load: Building base load refers to the minimum amount of energy that is consumed by a building while unoccupied. By establishing your base load, you will have a point of comparison to understand when systems are not operating as expected. You can also use your building’s base load to benchmark progress toward energy reduction goals. Monitoring performance overtime, especially using real-time data, enables data-driven building management decisions that are based on the unique circumstances of your building.
    • Heating and Cooling Load Profile: Heating and cooling loads measure the energy needed to be added or removed from a space to maintain a desired air temperature. Critical inputs into the heating and cooling load profile analysis include building location, outdoor temperature, indoor temperature, internal loads and where possible, information on the building enclosure. Understanding the heating and cooling load profile of your building is critical to optimizing your HVAC system – typically one of the largest sources of energy consumption in a commercial building. Optimizing HVAC performance not only improves the overall energy efficiency of your building but also improves indoor air quality and occupant comfort.

4. Leverage building data to optimize performance. If this sounds repetitive, keep in mind it is difficult to improve what you don’t measure! Your DER team should always have access to real-time utility and building systems data in order to make data-driven retrofit planning and implementation decisions.

5. Involve facilities management early and often for improved stakeholder buy-in. Any change in the management of your building will require ongoing involvement and support from facilities management. Share your goals and ensure the right incentives are in place to prevent dissatisfaction from a purely top down approach.

6. Engage building occupants by sharing building data to drive behavioral change. Occupants can significantly impact energy consumption, particularly with respect to plug-load and temperature settings. Energy dashboards are a great way to influence behavioral change by sharing energy data and reduction goals.

7. Apply data-driven approach to identifying retrofits that will have the greatest impact in your desired timeline.

Unlock Deep Energy Savings With BuildingOS's Energy Management Solution

While there are many ways to achieve deep energy savings, fully understanding building performance is crucial – and that’s where we come in. BuildingOS is a comprehensive software platform that centralizes all of your utility and building systems data, automates performance modeling, and allows you to understand and act on real-time performance data to continuously improve operational efficiency and reduce costs. Want to see how BuildingOS can help your DER team to improve your building portfolio? Contact us today!