It takes political will, clear goals, and stamina to maintain robust databases and ensure that energy data is used in a meaningful way.
When you get your monthly utility bill, it’s easy to see how much energy you used in a month or year, or to see how your consumption rates against your neighbors. But for cities, getting a handle on how much energy they use is more complicated. There is no single place to get a comprehensive picture of energy consumed as a government enterprise. Even if your city has a good system for collecting its energy data, how do you use it to improve operations and efficiency?
1. Gather the data
It can be difficult to get a good picture of all the energy being used across an entire government. According to Sean Williamson from the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center, where he provides assistance to cities and towns across the State as part of the Maryland Smart Energy Communities Program, there is wide variation in how cities get their arms around energy data. Some larger cities put significant amounts of money and effort into aggregating real-time data from all of their energy accounts into one place, where it can be used for decision making.
Other cities and towns, particularly smaller ones, may not have a clear picture of how much they are paying for energy. The picture may be even fuzzier for how much energy is being used, and when and how. Sean helps these smaller cities identify each utility account that they own, and works with their local utility to get a year’s worth of data
2. Put it into a strategic framework
Once a city has a comprehensive set of energy-use data, it needs to be analyzed and used to improve efficiency. Sean has seen some cities struggle to ensure that the data is being used to develop goals, generate strategies, and measure results. He has also seen many energy managers get frustrated because they are spending a significant effort collecting and maintaining good data, but have no framework to compel action. We know this applies to every sector of a city. There is little value in collecting data if it is not being used to inform decisions.
Sean believes that the framework set up by the Maryland Smart Energy Communities Program is part of the solution. The program requires communities to set measurable goals with a clear timeline for achievement. Communities set a baseline using the data that they have gathered, and revisit it annually to understand their progress. Goals give staff a clear reason to develop strategies for reducing energy use, which saves taxpayers money.
At the state level, the State of Maryland’s experience reinforces the importance of having a good goal framework in place. The State took years and a significant amount of staff effort to identify all of its energy accounts and pull the data into a centralized database. The database itself is impressive, but more importantly, the aggregated data is used on a regular basis.
Through StateStat, former Governor O’Malley had set a goal for the state government to lead by example in energy efficiency, by reducing energy consumption in state buildings by 20 percent by 2020 (from a 2008 baseline). Data, which required so much effort to get, was reviewed on a monthly basis to ensure that progress was made.
3. Free the data
Once you have good data and a framework in place for using it, the next step is to liberate the data. Environmental and clean energy stakeholders are very active in some communities, and could be engaged in what the city is doing to reduce its energy use through open energy consumption data. What strategies could these groups generate if they had open access to fine-grained detail on their city’s energy use?
As energy prices rise, controlling energy use becomes more and more important to a city’s bottom line. Setting up a framework to collect, measure, and most importantly, use energy data will help cities stay on top of this issue. Learn more about setting goals, benchmarking performance, and opening up your energy data.
If your city or state is doing great things with its energy data, we want to hear about it!
Thanks to Sean Williamson from the University of Maryland Environmental Finance Center, Devan Willemsen from the Maryland Energy Administration, and David St. Jean from the Department of Energy for their contributions to this post.