A View from Martin LaMonica
A Little Bit of Data, A Lot of Building Energy Saved
With just monthly utility data, startup WegoWise can save owners money on energy and potentially reach a wide audience.
Many technology companies are designing “big data” analytics software to improve building efficiency. And no wonder: analyzing energy usage and sensor data can cut wasted energy and prevent maintenance headaches, such as faulty equipment.
A Boston-based startup WegoWise is showing that you don’t necessarily need petabytes of data to gain insight into how to save energy. The company’s software is built around building energy data but it’s relying as much on good Web design and a clever business model as sophisticated algorithms.
I met with Barun Singh, a founder and chief technology officer of WegoWise earlier this fall at a clean energy business conference in Boston where many entrepreneurs were pitching what could be called “energy IT” or “cleantech IT” businesses. WegoWise, which has raised $1.9 million so far, plans to raise an addition $3 million in the months ahead to expand, Singh says.
Since commercial buildings use a lot of energy, they’re good candidates for using analysis and automation to reduce waste. Some companies’ software analyzes usage trends and sensors to optimize HVAC setting and lighting for efficiency. Others tap meter and building profile information to do virtual energy audits.
For property owners, this information can bring some insight to how much they spend on energy and ways they could be more efficient. This field is attractive for venture investors, too, since new companies can be financed as traditional IT companies, rather than the more capital-intensive fields in energy, such as solar or energy storage.
Rather than get data from meters or building control systems, WegoWise’s application runs on readily available source: monthly utility bills.
Building owners or managers fill out a questionnaire to provide basic information, such as square footage, HVAC system, and age of the building. Then they give WegoWise access to their monthly water, electric, gas water bills (hence the WEG in WegoWise) by providing user name and password to their utilities’ Web sites.
WegoWise can compare how individual buildings compare to benchmarks they’ve created with data from over 10,000 buildings. Then their Web-based application presents clean visualizations of the data that can help a building manager see that one building is consuming more energy or water than it should. It won’t diagnose the problem, but it helps identify the big energy wasters.
“The challenge is how to take coarse-grained data, add a little value and produce valuable information from that data,” Singh says. With meter data, it can provide more detailed information and do better comparisons, but it’s not necessary, he says. “The market for energy efficiency in buildings is going much more slowly than it should, and it’s not working well because of an information problem,” he says.
Singh says the savings depends on the building but finding the energy and water-wasting “outliers” can have a significant impact. MassSave, a utility-sponsored energy efficiency program, used the Web application to prioritize energy retrofits for low-income housing in Massachusetts. The service helped identify $137 million in energy savings, according to WegoWise. It will help the program manager to be more strategic about their energy retrofits and lower their costs, says John Wells, the co-chair of the Low-Income Energy Affordability Network. Since the system will continue to gather data over time, companies that pay for energy efficiency retrofits can confirm that the work is performing as it should.
WegoWise’s service starts at $5 per month, a price designed to attract a large audience ranging from commercial building owners to residential customers. That means its service, which may not be as complex as other analytics applications, has the potential to scale.