Another Fed Agency Chooses the Virtual Energy Audit: Market Disruption Ahead?

Jan. 1, 2014
Can the virtual energy audit replace the conventional building audit? Pose that question among energy efficiency professionals and watch the fur fly. EnergyEfficiencyMarkets.com recently asked Brian Wright, a senior mechanical engineer at the General Services Administration, why the federal agency chose the virtual approach…

Can the virtual energy audit replace the conventional physical audit? Pose that question among energy efficiency professionals and watch the fur fly.

EnergyEfficiencyMarkets.com recently asked Brian Wright, a senior mechanical engineer at the General Services Administration, why the federal agency chose the virtual approach for 300 buildings in a contract signed with FirstFuel Software in October.  The GSA  had already conducted a 26-building pilot program in 2012 with FirstFuel, and Wright was enthusiastic about the results.

For those not up to speed on this issue, virtual audits evaluate a building by using data collected remotely – an approach often described as zero touch or no boots on the ground. By comparison, a conventional audit requires physical, on-site inspection by trained auditors – a slower more labor intensive approach. Another company that specializes in remote building analytics, Retroficiency, likes to make its case for virtual assessment by pointing out that if every conventional energy auditor worked around the clock, it would take 22 years to analyze all buildings.

So on time alone, the virtual audit wins. And time is an issue for the GSA, as Wright explained, because the agency manages a large portfolio of buildings that must meet various federal energy monitoring and performance deadlines. The  buildings are required to cut energy use 30 percent by 2015 over 2003 levels.

The GSA’s new contract with FirstFuel focuses heavily on the agency’s  largest energy users. Just 198 buildings out of the 1,600 owned by GSA, they account for 75 percent of the energy use. Dubbed “covered facilities” by the feds, the 198 buildings must undergo an energy analysis once every four years.

The buildings all have smart meters, so FirstFuel is auditing them virtually by remotely collecting and then analyzing interval billing data. In the 26-building pilot program, the virtual audit proved five to seven times faster than the physical audit. The speed of the process will allow the GSA to keep on the four-year audit schedule for its big energy users, Wright said.

“We can get to green more quickly,” he said, referring to the color coding the agency uses to signal a project is on schedule.

But does the virtual audit uncover the same level of energy savings?

Wright described two buildings in Washington, D.C. that underwent both virtual and physical audits. At the end, there was little difference in the findings between the two audits, although the physical audit took much longer, he said.

“It was so incredibly close that anybody who says you can’t do it, either doesn’t understand how in-depth FirstFuel gets, or has some other reason for wanting to contest it,” Wright said. “It is just like anything else when a new technology comes out…there are just always people who are going to resist.”

Perhaps most significant, the virtual audit cost about one-tenth that of the boots-on-the ground approach, Wright said. The GSA expects to save about $13 million simply by conducting virtual rather than conventional audits on the covered facilities.

The GSA isn’t the only federal agency using virtual audits. FirstFuel also has a contract with the Department of Defense. And Retroficiency recently signed a large federal deal. This bodes well for virtual audits; the federal government is the nation’s largest energy user and often acts as a leader in helping new technologies reach scale.

But what of the conventional building audit?  Does the virtual audit spell its doom? Or are there instances where a virtual audit cannot uncover what boots-on-the-ground can? Does each have its own niche in building assessment? Please tell us about your experience with virtual versus on-site audits in the comments section.

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 RealEnergyWriters.com, 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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