A Look At Energy Benchmarking Options

Stuck in a rut? There is more than one way to benchmark energy in buildings and plants.

By Danny Macri, CEM
From the April 2021 Issue

Facility managers are often tasked with finding energy and cost savings in the buildings and plants they operate. They implement some projects and see savings. But eventually they hit a plateau and may assume there’s nothing else that can be done. This is often the story of organizations that are new to ENERGY STAR, a voluntary program managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For organizations that want sustained improvement in energy performance—and sustained cost savings—EPA recommends energy benchmarking as a first step.

Energy Benchmarking
(Photo: Getty Images / JustStock)

Simply put, benchmarking means comparing one’s performance or activities to another’s. It answers the question: “Is anyone who is similar to us doing a better job, and if so how?” Energy benchmarking can be used to compare equipment, facilities, or organizations to each other. Benchmarking can be performed by assessing quantitative or qualitative measures, and by making comparisons within or to others outside an organization. Let’s discuss the different approaches.

Quantitative benchmarking measures energy consumption. You can choose your metric, such as energy-per-square-foot or energy-per-unit-of-production. EPA’s ENERGY STAR program also offers the 1 to 100 ENERGY STAR score, a unique metric that incorporates operating characteristics and, when appropriate, weather patterns to give a more precise comparison.

Qualitative benchmarking, on the other hand, measures how energy is being managed. Qualitative benchmarking helps organizations understand whether the energy management approach they’re taking will be sufficient to achieve their desired reductions. For example, a facility manager may learn that peers have used internal competitions to get their employees to save energy. Or they may learn that other managers like them have received a capital projects budget specifically for sustainability projects.

Whether quantitative or qualitative, benchmarking can be done either internally or externally. Internal benchmarking involves comparing similar buildings within an organization’s portfolio. It is useful for identifying low- and high-performers—and therefore knowing where to target investments. Internal benchmarking can also compare a building’s performance or management systems to itself over time.

One example of internal benchmarking is the ENERGY STAR Challenge for Industry. Manufacturing plants select an energy intensity metric and track their performance over time. Plants that reduce their intensity by 10% or more within five years can be recognized by EPA for meeting the Challenge. As of early 2021, the Challenge has been achieved more than 500 times.

External benchmarking means comparing a building’s performance or management systems to what others outside the organization are doing. For example, commercial building managers can input their energy and facility characteristics into EPA’s online ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager tool. Industrial plants can do the same using Excel-based Energy Performance Indicators. Facilities then receive a 1 to 100 ENERGY STAR score, which compares that facility’s energy performance to similar facilities across the country. Those that score high are leaders in their sector for efficiency. Those that have low scores have the greatest opportunity to improve.

That’s where qualitative benchmarking can be useful. Benchmarking energy management activities against others can help facility management understand ways to improve performance. ENERGY STAR provides resources and helps facilitate this kind of benchmarking.

Energy Benchmarking
(Click image to enlarge.)

For example, the ENERGY STAR Facility Assessment Matrix helps evaluate site energy management practices through a comparison with the best practices. ENERGY STAR trainings showcase best practices of organizations that have excelled in reducing their energy and greenhouse gas emissions. For industrial partners, ENERGY STAR facilitates benchmarking sessions between organizations.

This kind of benchmarking has led to concrete results for participating organizations. For example, after benchmarking against another company, an auto manufacturer learned that it could greatly improve the performance of its chillers. This company went on to win an international award for optimizing its chillers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, companies learned from each other about innovative ways to manage energy in buildings that were experiencing lower occupancy rates. After a recent benchmarking event among manufacturers, participants learned that 60% of companies install submetering at the department or equipment level in their large plants. This is helping companies without submeters make the case to management to install them in their plants.

Benchmarking is a critical step to reduce the energy consumption and carbon footprint of buildings and plants. It’s a practice that should be done routinely for facility managers that are just starting to set energy goals, as well as seasoned facility managers with mature energy programs. Getting involved with EPA’s ENERGY STAR program and other organizations that can provide resources and help facilitate benchmarking is a great place to start.

Danny MacriMacri is an industrial sector manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ENERGY STAR program. In his role, he focuses on the program’s areas that work with manufacturers to increase energy efficiency across their operations. Macri leads initiatives with several manufacturing sectors to identify best energy management practices and create benchmarking tools to improve sustainability through improved energy performance.

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