Saving Energy in Boston: What the City’s ‘DNA’ Reveals

Dec. 9, 2014
Saving energy in Boston these three ways could cut building utility costs by $49 million and give the city big greenhouse gas reductions.

Saving energy in Boston — or any other city — is less mysterious if you understand the overall DNA of its buildings, markers that show how they use electricity and heat.

That’s the idea behind Retroficiency’s Building Genome Project, which today released a DNA mapping of 16,800 commercial buildings in Boston.

What’s fascinating — and controversial — is how Retroficiency does the modeling.  Within just a few days the data analysis company was able to capture the energy profile of the massive building fleet, which uses about $1 billion in energy annually. The project identified nearly $50 million in potential energy savings through lighting, heating and behavior changes.

Retroficiency did this with readily accessible f information about the buildings, data found in public tax records. It coupled the data with statistical inference algorithms based on tens of thousands of previous audits.

Energy auditors criticize the practice, saying you can’t really get down to the bones of the building — what damper on what floor is failing to close properly, for example — without a physical audit.

But Retroficiency says the genome project’s purpose is different than that of a conventional audit. The company is trying to show cities how they can make large-scale change quickly to their entire energy portfolio.

A city like Boston cannot achieve its aggressive environmental goals with building-by-building audits alone, which would take decades. Boston has set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

“This information is intended to accelerate a shift in how industry — including utilities, energy service providers and building owners — and policy leaders approach the world’s energy efficiency challenge,” said Retroficiency in a case study released today.

Boston was rated number one among 34 major cities in the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy’s scorecard. So what more can it do to improve the energy performance of its building stock?

Boston also plans to use microgrids to achieve its greenhouse gas reductions. See more here.

Retroficiency found that saving energy in Boston through three changes could cut energy bills $49 million annually. The changes would reduce overall energy use by about 6 percent  across Boston’s commercial building portfolio and help the city reach 24 percent of its remaining GHG emission reduction goal.

Here are the specifics.

Save $27 million and cut energy use 3.2 percent (MMBtu) with advanced lighting controls in every large hotel, retail, and office building. Carbon savings would be 81,368 metric tons, the same as taking 17,287 passenger vehicles off the road

Save $20 million and cut energy 2.1 percent (MMBtu) by turning the thermostat up one degree in the summer and down 1 degree in the winter.  Carbon savings would be 81,017 metric tons, the same as taking 17,212 passenger vehicles off the road

Save  $2 million and cut energy use  0.3 percent (MMBtu) by instituting a half-day Fridays during the summer in office buildings. Carbon savings would be 7,054 metric tons, the same as  taking  1,499 passenger vehicles off the road.

Boston was the second city analyzed by the Building Genome Project; the first was New York earlier this year.  (See Energy Efficiency Markets, Green Cities: It’s All in the DNA.)

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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