I’ve been reading several conflicting posts about the value of energy information dashboards. The opinions run from “the greatest thing since sliced bread” to “worthless.” The “greatest” crowd describes gems of knowledge, while the worthless crowd shouts that dashboards are today’s patent medicine.

If you build a better mouse trap. . .

Those who find energy dashboards invaluable have a strong point. Today’s systems are fantastic. The massive investment in “green” technology has certainly benefited the available toolset. Many GreenTech investors are looking to make their next fortune from the same source as their last – IP based information delivered to web browsers. These investors seek to develop a must-have killer app for buildings. Riches will be discovered from each building that subscribes to their service.

These dreams have led many creative people to build imaginative solutions. There are dashboards that can show you the current usage and GHG emissions; graphical building control displays that can reveal every facet of a building’s mechanical systems; meter data management solutions that allow benchmarking, alarming, and beautiful charts to reduce consumption and avoid peaks; and demand Response systems that allow buildings to generate revenue through peak time energy reduction.

The “worthless” crowd sees millions of dollars spent on information, and bemoan the energy conservation projects that could have been built with the same money. They argue that capital improvements will save money immediately without any behavioral changes. To them it’s simple: retro-commission, change out lights, install variable frequency drives – done.

I happen to think that both groups have valid points. The success of either will depend on the building, its occupancy, the operational staff, and most importantly, the quality of the systems installed. The best solution for two identical buildings may be very different depending on these factors. For example, installing efficient lighting in a conference center that is used only 6 hours a day will get a much lower payback than a 24/7 call center of the same size. Conversely for those same spaces, an advanced control system that connects the lighting and HVAC to the room’s schedule won’t save much for the 24/7 call center, but it can deliver meaningful results for a seldom used space. Obviously, the quality of the dashboard is significant, but so is the quality of project development for a capital project.

The most important variable in the estimate of the value of an energy dashboard is the people. While this may surprise some, this won’t come as a big shock to professionals in the space – many dashboards are never used. Information is worthless if no one sees it, and that’s what happens to the output of many systems. It’s important that dashboards provide useful and compelling information in an easy to understand format, but the interpretation and application of the data by building professionals is the determining factor in proving the benefits of the system.

Prudent owners today install advanced energy management systems, and if they don’t have on staff resources, they contract with service firms to manage the systems that manage their energy use. Dashboards can deliver tremendous savings to companies who treat that data like its money, which it actually is.

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