Lessons Learned from Minnesota's Public Building Enhanced Energy Efficiency Program
CEE designed and administered PBEEEP for the State of Minnesota. In addition to helping Minnesota acheive its energy conservation goals, the program identified best practices for existing building commissioning programs. In this interview, Senior Mechanical Engineer Mark Hancock and Program Manager Chris Plum share how to drive program participation, describe their quality assurance process, and offer advice to program managers.
Anna: How are public buildings different from average commercial buildings?
The building features themselves are not different. But they’re owned by public entities, which have a different criteria for payback. Commercial real estate keeps the debt service on a particular building short in the event that the ownership group wants to turn that building over. The State would not want to turn its buildings over. They have a vested interest in maintaining them.
Anna: Does that mean they’re willing to invest in more expensive energy improvements?
Yes, they will tolerate a much longer payback. They’re willing to do project with longer paybacks when it makes sense. But the commercial market isn’t interested in paybacks longer than two years.
Anna: Could you describe how you screened buildings for eligibility? What did you look for besides the basics like building size and existing inefficiencies?
We looked for systems that were optimizable where we could implement control sequences to improve the performance of the systems. We also looked for characteristics of variable occupancy so that we could take advantage of unoccupied and occupied modes.
Another criteria was a building automation system we could use during the investigation phase. We typically program these systems to trend data on 15 minute intervals, and collect months of data. The building automation system can tell us what’s happening when people aren’t there. Is the equipment turning off or turning on? Is the temperature going down or going up? We can identify inefficiencies through trending.
The screening was a value-added component of our project. It made the best possible use of state funds. We weren’t going to look at a building with little or no energy savings potential.
Anna: PBEEEP’s participation rate was very high. To what do you attribute that success?
The number one reason was the federal funds attached to the program that payed for all the upfront investigation costs. There was a relatively low risk for any site to get involved in PBEEEP. It was an opportunity for a third party look at their facilities for free.There aren’t really any similar programs to compare to. The other available programs are utility-funded, and those typically have some form of co-funding (often 25 percent or more) for the investigation phase.
Anna: What else? What strategies did you use to connect with building owners and operators?
The Department of Administration, Real Estate, and Construction Services promoted PBEEEP for us. And we spent a lot of time making one-on-one connections with sites that hadn’t responded.
I would say out of the 70-some sites that participated, only about four came completely unsolicited. We contacted about 90 percent of them multiple times. The state agencies gave us a contact list and endorsed the program, which was essential to our success.
We had champions in each major division: the Department of Corrections, at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, at the Department of Natural Resources, and at the State Capitol complex. So personal outreach is really how we got that participation rate.
Anna: You advocate the approach of going after low-hanging fruit as opposed to completing a deep retrofit. How has the energy financing animation been a useful tool for your messaging?
There is a big push right now for doing a deep retrofit, and its advocates consider the PBEEEP process as taking the low-cost and no-cost items off the table so that it’s more difficult to do these deep retrofits. We’ve always argued that it makes more sense to start with small projects and do bigger projects later. Whereas the other school of thought is do everything at once, finance it for a long term, and be happy with it. I don’t think that’s the best route. The financing animation really pulls it all together and effectively delivers the message.
Anna: How did you come up with the idea for a customized operations manual?
The State requested we develop a way to ensure the equipment worked correctly after it was installed. We considered the standard offerings, like a class on how to operate a boiler. But facilities managers knew how to run a boiler, they needed to know how to run THEIR boilers and how their systems are operated. So we customized manuals for their site, their equipment, and their automation screens.
Facility people have shelves full of equipment manuals that are of limited utility because they’re completely generic. A manual often includes information about multiple models of a piece of equipment like a chiller, without indicating which specific model you have. There’s not a good connection between the paperwork and what’s actually installed at the location.
We also found that some operators weren’t familiar with factors like the temperature at which a fan should turn on and off, or what the position of a damper opening should be, which is not part of the manual that comes with the equipment. They hadn’t performed the original setup of their system so they didn’t know how it had been done, and if any setting was incorrect they didn’t know what the correct value should be. If you don’t know what’s wrong in the first place, you won’t have any idea how to fix it. We designed the manual to address that by providing the key operating values for the most energy efficient operation of the equipment at the specific site.
Anna: What is the difference between a “benchmark” and a “baseline”?
A benchmark is how your building performs against a standard. State buildings use a product called B3, and B3’s benchmark is the current state energy code. As a user, you can benchmark your building against the standard.
The baseline is your historic energy use: what do you actually use? For example, you might take the year 2010 as your baseline annual use, before you make any energy improvements. Then you can compare all the coming years to your baseline of 2010 to report savings and determine if your energy improvements are performing as expected.
Anna: And PBEEEP reported both?
In some cases, we didn’t have a lot of confidence in the benchmark numbers as a measure of building performance. Most of the PBEEEP buildings were mixed use, so they didn’t fit into any pure or simple category. There are very few buildings in the state that are only an office building, as an example.
And your benchmark is only as good as you characterize your building. We saw a number of sites that were misrepresented because they had office space characterized as laboratories, which have much higher EUI (Energy Use Intensity) than office space.
In terms of the level of precision that they’re at, I’d say the benchmark numbers are good to within 10% for many buildings, but that’s probably as good as they can be due to differences in building use and other operational considerations. The weather-normalized baseline it is probably good to one percent.
Anna: Could you describe PBEEEP’s Quality Assurance (QA) process?
There are a variety of approaches to QA. In the auditing approach, you take a sample and assume everything else is the same as what you’ve sampled. That well works when you’ve got a well-defined process. PBEEEP’s approach was to integrate QA into the energy saving calculation process and examine 100 percent of the work. We relied on engineering providers to identify the opportunities for energy savings and collect the field information; then we looked at those calculations. We sought to replicate their analytic process to make sure we came out with the same results for energy savings and cost of implementation.
The short answer is that we made sure they didn’t violate the laws of thermodynamics, and that their engineering knowledge was sufficient so that we could rely on the calculations to be investment-grade. We made sure their assumptions were proper.
Anna: How did the process affect customer service?
This was before the customer ever saw the report. We made sure that the provider did not release any calculations beforehand, because we needed to manage customer expectations. We were the experts so that the site didn’t have to assess whether or not a recommendation was valid.
On the one hand, QA slowed the process down a bit. But the implementation rate was high, and from the feedback we received one reason for this was that customers felt they could count on energy savings if we’d reviewed the report. They never asked: “do you think this will save us any money?”
We were conservative. We derated it enough that we knew the savings would be realized.
Anna: Do you have any advice for utilities or other organizations interested in starting an existing building commissioning program?
Don’t expect it to happen all at once. It needs to grow and mature on its own. We were limited by our quick growth due to the ARRA funds. Providers weren’t able to work through the process once and understand the terms of the program. They were required to do four to six projects in parallel, so when they failed on one they failed on all. So that caused us a lot of additional administrative and quality assurance work. So, grow slowly to a level that you can sustain with the number of providers you have.
We learned through our partnership with PECI that it takes a lot of training on the front end for the providers to understand how the program works. Minnesota utilities have adopted the model of training engineering firms working with their programs about how the program works. Those are the big things: grow slow and support your providers in order to get them on board.
We could have done a better job communicating to each providers that it’s their project. They need to own the project and promote themselves. The program does not succeed unless they succeed. They need to make money on the project and establish a customer relationship as a result of it. The engineering firms did not take as much ownership of that role as we would have liked.
A lot of the sites ended up feeling like they had a better relationship with us at the end, rather than with the provider, which is the opposite of how it should have been.
The other thing is, the QA process was helpful to those providers who took advantage of it as a learning experience. Because there were so many concurrent projects, we got backlogged and weren’t able to give feedback as quickly as we would have liked. Whenever we could, we gave informal feedback to providers who asked if they were on the right track. In the long run, it did improve the quality of work and the project savings of the providers who worked closely with us.
Establishing that process and getting people to embrace it, getting people to understand that you’re not their adversary because you have QA but you’re trying to help them out, it can be a challenge but also a benefit.
Existing Building Commissioning Case Study: Minnesota History Center
The Art of Building Recommissioning
Building Automation System Overview
Related technial reports:
Program Results from the State of Minnesota's Existing Building Commissioning Program
(Presented at the 2013 National Conference on Building Commissioning)
Results of Minnesota’s Public Buildings Enhanced Energy Efficiency Program
(Presented at the 2012 ACEEE Summer Study)
How Existing Building Commissioning Can Save Money and Improve Comfort in Commercial Buildings
Energy Savings Calculations for Existing Building Commissioning
Using Building Automation Systems as a Commissioning Tool