Retroficiency wants to use big data to make big buildings smarter

By James Robinson , written on July 1, 2014

From The News Desk

According to the US Energy Information Association, 40 percent of America’s energy is consumed in residential and commercial buildings. Bennett Fisher -- CEO and co-founder of Retroficiency, which makes energy audit software -- says that 30-50 percent of that is wasted.

It amounts to about $130 billion of energy. This is the huge opportunity for Retroficiency. But my first surprise is that smart devices, the Nests of this world that are fueling consumer smart home dreams, hold little interest for Fisher. As he explains to me, going into the individual room, getting partial information at such a granular level, isn’t scalable. Insight stalls out. In a perfect world, maybe one day Retroficiency will be able to get data off every piece of equipment, but until then this whole realm is not much use.

The game changer in using data analysis to improve energy efficiency has been the rising penetration of smart meters in America (now deployed in 4.4 million commercial buildings nationwide). The ability to look at building level data, breaking it down in some cases into quarter-hour blocks, combined with the (marveled at in many fields) exponential increases in cloud computing capabilities have been the true needle mover.

“It used to be that if I’m a building owner, to get my attention someone has to offer me of a free audit, where someone from the energy company comes out, wastes a day or two of my time and then mails me a 60 page PDF, which I’m going to read and then go back to what I was doing beforehand anyway,” Fisher says.

Retroficiency, Fisher says, takes this explosion in building level data, which its clients hand over, and combines it with publicly available information to try to understand how exactly it is being used. It builds two energy models: one for how the building is being used currently and another for how it could be used if energy were better managed.

The company directs its recommendations to clients -- it works with large energy services who control 100,000 buildings -- helping its clients target inefficient buildings under their control, engage with the units desperately in need of assistance, helps with conversion and implementation and then follows up to make sure the changes have taken hold.

The small misnomer, as Bennett and I get into it, is that the 30-50 percent of wasted energy can simply be removed like a bad spelling error all with better access to data. “You’re not going to capture all of that. There’s technical hurdles, capital hurdles,” he says. Retroficiency’s analytics looks for the most cost effective savings. Energy efficiency in commercial buildings could be improved by 18 percent just by attacking the lowest hanging fruit, he says. The company works with clients to identify the best improvements that can be made and shows them how quickly these investments in efficiency can both pay themselves back and become profitable.

“We’re looking to power this industry with information,” Fisher says.

Fisher tells me he sees that this is as a $1 trillion market. People already spend $150 billion on energy efficiency each year, he says, much of which he thinks isn’t good value for money. But Retroficiency faces headwinds. There’s the usual amount of fractious tension around privacy settings and permissions that allow power companies to share their data with it. He concedes that the analytics piece of what his company does, its “special sauce,” is entirely reliant on access to more and more information. He says that one utility company has a motion before the Public Utilities Commission to make all utilities data publicly available. It’s the double-edged sword of information. All of that data can help companies slash energy consumption. But it can’t be coughed up without annihilating consumer privacy, butting two social goods up against each other.

There’s also the fact that in parts of the country with better energy habits already, the potency of Retroficiency’s offering is diminished. In California, smart meter deployment is near universal, Fisher says.

Reflecting on our conversation, I also wonder whether his dismissal of consumer smart devices as unscalable is a small act of hubris, too. Because while Retroficiency is looking at industrial level and examining changes it can make at scale, if people get used to empowering themselves to act on that granular level without outside help, Retroficiency could get locked out.

But talking to Fisher, it is still all a small, hopeful reminder that as bleak as our environmental stasis is, technological progress can improve the situation, rather than furthering our demise.