Power gang: FirstFuel chief technology officer Badri Raghavan (at left) poses alongside company founders Robert Kaufmann, Ken Kolkebeck, and Swapnil Shah at the town library in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Patrick Goddard doesn’t like energy audits. For him, as director of facilities for the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, an audit means a day spent walking around one of 22 buildings owned by the town, peering at insulation on windows and finding the keys to the HVAC room.
Worse, auditors “don’t understand how the buildings operate,” Goddard complains. “They see it at one point in time and do an analysis on what they see.” Usually, their report comes back weeks later recommending more equipment, new windows, or more insulation.
So when a Lexington resident named Swapnil Shah approached Goddard at a meeting of the town energy committee and asked if the town was interested in a “virtual” audit, Goddard said yes.
He gave Shah a year’s worth of data from the electricity meter of a town building. A few hours later, Shah sent Goddard a report showing that the building seemed to be using nearly as much energy after hours as during the day, suggesting it wasn’t getting shut down properly. Eventually, Shah examined seven of Lexington’s buildings and discovered problems that an auditor might have missed—for example, that the library’s heating system was powering up at 4 a.m., hours before staff arrived in the mornings.
It was “absolutely better” than an on-the-ground audit, says Goddard, who expects simple efficiency fixes to save him $90,000, or about 3 percent of his annual operating budget.
Shah’s startup, FirstFuel, finds these savings thanks to a combination of analytical software, building expertise, and so-called interval meters that utilities have begun putting in place. These smart electricity meters update as frequently as every 15 minutes, capturing tens of thousands of data points each year where the old, monthly-read meters captured just 12.
Along with data from the new meters, all FirstFuel needs to start an audit is a building’s address. The company determines the hourly local temperature and precipitation and gets satellite imagery to determine a building’s shape and position relative to the sun. Combining those data, its software is able to deduce what’s been happening inside a building, spitting out a description of how it consumes electricity across nine categories, including cooling, electric heating, lighting, pumps, and plug usage.