Data Data Everywhere and Not a Link to Make

by Elena Alschuler, Building Technologies Specialist, US Department of Energy; Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

The amount of data available to inform decision making has increased rapidly over the past few decades. We can find statistics on the gas mileage and resale prices for different types of used cars, and we can use smartphone apps to scan bar codes to track the nutritional content of our food. Yet we haven’t achieved this level of data-driven decision making for purchasing, renting, and improving homes and commercial buildings, which are among the biggest investments we make. This is because several different kinds of data about buildings are needed to conduct useful analysis, and different market actors each have a part of the puzzle.

If efforts to streamline the collection, management, and sharing of data are achieved, building-level decision makers will be able to pinpoint variations in building performance, identify efficiency investment opportunities, and estimate the likely savings from investments. Moreover, state and local energy officials will be able to design and implement the most effective energy efficiency programs and policies, given local market conditions and trends.

Who Wants Building Energy Performance Data and Why?
Stakeholders’ wide-ranging uses for empirical data about existing building energy performance generally fall into three main categories, all involving the same stakeholders and requiring similar kinds of data.1,2

  • Energy Efficiency Investment Decision-Making. Building owners and managers, and some large tenants, have control over building energy systems and pay the associated capital and operational costs. Owners and managers primarily use building energy performance information to make decisions about capital investments or the operation of their buildings.
  • Building Performance Tracking. More than 15 U.S. cities and states have passed laws requiring the benchmarking and disclosure of energy use in private buildings, and an increasingly large number of public entities have committed to benchmarking public buildings. The implementation of disclosure policies requires public officials to collect, clean, and analyze massive amounts of data from a range of sources, then share portions of it with the public.
  • Energy Efficiency Program Implementation and Evaluation. Energy efficiency programs often provide incentives or technical assistance to support owners’ data collection and analysis activities. They use data to conduct program design and outreach, track project performance, and evaluate programs.

The stakeholders involved in these use cases are:

  • Building owners and managers, and others with a role in building operations, such as building staff, tenants, and asset managers;
  • Energy auditors, architects, engineers, and contractors, and others involved in design and construction;
  • Utilities and energy efficiency program administrators, along with regulators, program evaluators, and implementation contractors;
  • Federal agencies, states, cities, and other public policy organizations;
  • Lenders, insurers, appraisers, and investors, and other parties with a financial stake in buildings;
  • Researchers, academics, and advocates who conduct analyses of building energy and characteristic data to inform the activities of other stakeholders;
  • Standards entities, software developers, and other parties that create databases, platforms, or guidelines to support the activities of other stakeholders.

The types of data required for the three primary use cases are:

  • Basic information such as building age, size, location, and use;
  • Energy consumption information at the building, meter, or equipment level;
  • Operational information, including operating hours, occupancy, space uses, equipment settings,
  • and controls;
  • Physical information about the equipment, walls, windows, and so on;
  • Energy efficiency measure information on what improvements were installed and when, associated capital and operating/maintenance costs, and commissioning activities.

Where Is the Data, and Who Has It?
Each stakeholder has only part of the data needed to achieve any of the use case activities. Basic building information is most commonly known, and data collection about energy consumption and operations is becoming increasingly automated. However, information about physical characteristics is often the “missing piece.” It is the hardest data to collect, as it requires a qualified person to complete an on-site inventory.

Owners, building managers, and facility staff often know basic information about their building, and may also know about recently completed capital improvements. Facility staff often track operational information in the course of their work, but this may or may not be done in an automated way or electronic format. In some cases, total building energy consumption is known, but in multi-tenant buildings the owner may not have information from tenant meters. In addition, sometimes accounting staff handle utility bills and do not pass consumption information to facility staff.

Contractors know the efficiency measures they installed, but if it is not a whole-home/building project, they may not know the basic building information. Unless contractually required to provide M&V (measurement and verification) or commissioning, the contractor may not know energy consumption information.

Utilities are directly responsible for collecting energy consumption data as part of their business. The dramatic increase in consumption data availability is due to the rise in utility smart meters and electronic meter reading. Energy data in the Green Button format is now available for more than 42 million customers, and utilities have committed to make it available to 17 million more.3 However, utilities usually track accounts (meters), rather than buildings, and they may not know how many or which accounts are associated with a single building.

Like contractors, efficiency program administrators will know what efficiency measures were installed, and perhaps the equipment that was replaced. Programs often use deemed savings for individual equipment “swap-out” incentives, and may only track energy consumption data and physical and operational characteristics for “whole building” incentives.

Public entities often have good data sets of basic information about the building stock in their jurisdiction, collected from tax assessor records, planning departments, and building permits. Though this information may sometimes be decentralized or out of date, it can serve as the foundation for a robust data set covering an entire local market.

Finally, financiers that fund renovations are typically most concerned with the project details and costs. To the extent that their business model includes a savings guarantee or a public purpose, they may track more detailed energy consumption, physical, and operational data.


Building performance database. Source: U.S. Dept of Energy.

How Can We Collect and Combine These Datasets?
Entities with a public interest, including state and local governments, utilities, and program administrators, can collaborate on the collection of all the data needed to drive more informed decision making at the building and market level. In addition, the federal government is creating tools and resources to help facilitate these activities.

State and local governments and utilities can work together, through programs such as the DOE’s Better Buildings Energy Data Accelerator, to match utility meters to buildings and associated property tax data. This establishes foundational knowledge about all the buildings in a given market and their basic characteristics and energy consumption. As part of this work, public entities and regulators can help establish privacy policies and permission structures for sharing this data with building owners, energy efficiency programs, and others, either in a raw format or an aggregated or anonymous way.

Energy efficiency incentive program information can be used to expand and update the foundational information. Creating exhaustive data collection requirements for efficiency programs may be counterproductive, but efficiency programs can work to ensure that the data they collect in the course of providing incentives is in a consistent, electronic data format.

Finally, building performance transparency laws, which often cover energy consumption, operating characteristics, and physical characteristics, can be used to accelerate the pace of data collection.

The federal government is developing a standardized, interoperable ecosystem of tools to help bring the building energy data system to scale. Tools that can be used to collect and analyze operational and physical information include the EPA’s Portfolio Manager and Home Energy Yardstick, as well as the DOE’s Commercial Energy Asset Score and Home Energy Score. The DOE’s Standard Energy Efficiency Data Platform is designed to help public-interest entities combine and manage data from multiple sources, and the Building Performance Database provides a central location where anonymous information from across the country can be accessed and analyzed by the public. Finally, the Building Energy Data Exchange Specification facilitates the exchange of data across both public and private tools by providing a standard dictionary of terms, definitions and field formats.4

What Does Success Look Like?
In the public sector, consistent data collection and efforts to combine datasets will enable stakeholders to design programs and policies to have the biggest impact based on local market conditions, to target buildings with the greatest savings potential, and to provide information feedback to participants. The data can also be used to conduct better measurement and verification of benchmarking, incentive, and financing programs at lower cost, and to evaluate contractors.

Making this data accessible to the market has the potential to transform the real estate industry. At scale, building energy performance data can lower the cost and effort required to assess savings opportunities in individual buildings and develop energy strategies across portfolios. Building-level decision makers will be able to compare building models to actual performance data, and accurately track post-improvement performance. It will also increase availability, decrease cost, and improve accuracy of data-driven products and services. By increasing the available information about local real estate markets, data can influence rent and sale prices and ultimately inform asset value.

1 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Peregrine Energy Group, and Raab Associates Ltd. (2013, August). Building energy data exchange specification scoping report. Retrieved from www.energy.gov/eere/buildings/downloads/building-energy-data-exchange-specification-scoping-report
2 These three core use cases do not fully cover activities such as new construction, code compliance, retrofit finance, building performance modeling/simulation, and solar projects, which may involve additional stakeholders and types of data. Nevertheless, the efforts described in this article could be expanded to address these activities in the future.
3 White House Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. (2014, December 5). Expanded ”Green Button” will reach federal agencies and more American energy consumers. Retrieved from www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/12/05/expanded-green-button-will-reach-federal-agencies-and-more-american-energy-consumers
4 U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Analysis tools. Retrieved from www.energy.gov/eere/buildings/analysis-tools


These insights draw heavily from the experience of the DOE team working on the Building Performance Database, the Standard Energy Efficiency Data Platform, and the Building Energy Data Exchange Specification, in partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Institute for Market Transformation, Raab Associates, and Peregrine Energy Group.