Quick read: Using a street address and a year’s worth of meter readings, new software can generate an instant profile of a building’s energy use.
Robert Kaufmann, a Boston University professor and cofounder of FirstFuel, is cagey about exactly how the analysis works. But he and his colleague Nalin Kulatilaka say they combine techniques like regression analysis and neural networks to predict a building’s characteristics.
Their statistical models were fine-tuned through lengthy discussions with Ken Kolkebeck, a building engineer who is also among FirstFuel’s cofounders. He helped Kaufmann and Kulatilaka understand which results mattered in their models. “Without Ken, we’d be drowning in data,” Kaufmann says.
Humans are still involved in aspects of the business like recommending specific steps to take to lower energy use. But thanks to the data crunching, the whole process takes just a few hours, and FirstFuel says it can analyze about half a dozen buildings a day. It expects to nearly double staff this year following a $10 million venture capital round announced in February. Overall it has raised $12.4 million.
The company’s plans fit into a wider recognition that efficiency could play a giant role in meeting energy needs. Buildings account for around 40 percent of all energy use in most countries. Yet in many commercial buildings, 20 percent of energy is simply wasted by leaving lights on or running heat and cooling simultaneously.
Tools like FirstFuel’s won’t replace physical audits entirely. Instead, the software is more likely to be a fast way to screen for problems. The company is starting to work with some utilities in hopes of providing automated reports based on meter data to all their big clients.
“It means you can show [building managers] the problems they have,” says Mary Ann Piette, head of the building technologies and urban systems department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “The first step is awareness.”
In Lexington, Patrick Goddard says he’ll be adding interval meters to more town buildings. “Now you get the bill every month and you’re trying to figure out what happened,” he says.