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In New York, we're saving energy by taming the digital beast

The largest US state-owned utility is a believer in "what gets measured gets improved" and can show the results, says NYPA CEO Gil Quiniones

It gets harder by the day to prioritise the waves of data coming at us to determine what’s relevant, what’s noise and — most importantly — what to do with what the data we consider relevant.

At the New York Power Authority, the largest state-owned utility in the US, we had the opportunity to harness the potential of Big Data and the deep trove of analytics it provided to take on the challenge of how it could cut energy use in New York state.

Suffice to say, this was no small undertaking — data gets unwieldy in a hurry. But we’ve managed to tame the digital beast. The results are now apparent at our New York Energy Manager Network Operations Center (NYEM) in Albany, the capital of New York state.

NYEM will use its trove of information to dramatically reduce energy consumption in more than 3,000 state buildings across New York. I’m looking to ramp up that number to 20,000 in a few years by also including buildings owned by cities, counties and towns.

What’s in it for them? Plenty. NYEM provides building managers with secure data in real time to continuously improve efficiency and drive down energy costs. The end results: a significant jump in productivity, as it will be easier for building operators to manage energy use, smartly manage assets by early detection of service issues and extending the useful life of their energy assets.

In some ways, NYEM’s technology is increasingly what can be found in homes. Today, you can use a smartphone or tablet to control room temperature, security systems, lighting, and appliances. Smart thermostats measure outside temperatures and monitor weather conditions to send alerts about a broken pipe or increased levels of carbon monoxide. Homeowners are becoming sophisticated energy managers. It was time we did that at the government level.

"Multiply those savings out by thousands of buildings statewide and you are not only making a serious dent in greenhouse gas emissions, but potentially saving hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer dollars "
Gil C Quiniones, NYPA

Enter NYEM, which continuously monitors electricity, natural gas, steam, hot water, chilled water, space temperatures, humidity and fresh air. Optimising these variables leads to significant energy savings and peak load reduction during times of stress on the central grid.    

It sounds so elemental, yet thousands of these buildings, many of them decades old, don’t have any building energy management systems to speak of. To help with that, NYEM is working with government agencies to install thousands of sensors to monitor energy use or the lack thereof.

Consider the case of a university campus.

NYEM was used to track energy use during a winter semester break. By showing the university its real-time performance, NYEM helped the school achieve $250,000 in avoided energy costs through such steps as identifying where the heat could be lowered in unused buildings or where lights should be turned off at night. Multiply those savings out by thousands of buildings statewide and you are not only making a serious dent in greenhouse gas emissions, but potentially saving hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer dollars at the same time.

NYEM uses visualisation dashboards to provide building engineers with an accurate picture of their facility’s energy performance. The dashboard, also visible to NYPA engineers, allows NYEM and the buildings to instantaneously and strategically achieve energy-reduction goals without compromising the integrity of the grid. In effect, we’re creating digital twins of these buildings to keep track of their energy use.  

To be sure, this is not being done in a vacuum. NYEM is a cornerstone of the BuildSmart NY programme created by governor Andrew Cuomo to cut energy use by 20% in state-owned and managed buildings by 2020. It’s also fully aligned with the intent of his Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) strategy to build a clean, resilient and affordable energy system throughout the state.

Big Data giving wind the right numbers

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REV acts in concert with the governor’s Clean Energy Standard, which mandates that half of the state’s energy needs be provided by green, renewable resources by 2030. The NYEM platform will play a significant role in reaching the standard’s aggressive goal. It enables state agencies to assess the potential of deploying distributed energy resources to enhance access to renewables based on the total value they would create for the customer and the electricity grid. When that foundation is in place, NYPA intends to extend NYEM’s capabilities to the private sector as well.

Because hardware and software have significantly evolved in recent years, and prices continue to drop, mass deployment of digital sensors and meters are within the reach of companies large and small.

NYEM puts a new spin on the saying, “What gets measured, gets improved”. Information is the foundation of knowledge and knowledge is power. NYEM is the gateway to a more powerful energy system.

Gil C Quiniones is president and chief executive of the New York Power Authority, the largest state-owned utility in the US

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