(Image via Minnesota Center for Energy and Environment)
EI Website Graph
(Image via Minnesota Center for Energy and Environment)

Last year, Phil Berkness signed up for a energy efficiency pilot program aimed at small industrial manufacturers.

As the chief executive officer of the precision machining firm Swiss Berkness in Minnesota, he had a great interest in reducing the cost of energy without reducing operations.

After enrolling in the Minneapolis-based Center for Energy and Environment’s (CEE) “Energy Intelligence For Industry” program, Berkness could log on to a website and see his energy use in 15 minute increments. After a few months of monitoring the CEE gave him a number of suggestions, from replacing warehouse and office lighting to adding sophisticated thermostats.

“It was quite impressive,” he said of Energy Intelligence’s data. “I didn’t expect it to be as accurate or as accessible as it was.”

With new lighting installed in his 10,000 square foot facility, Berkness will save around $200 a month and pay for the improvement in a year. More changes will add as much as another $200 a month in savings, he said.

Kevin Bengtson, who oversees Energy Intelligence, points out the program has worked with 54 companies and is actively recruiting 48 more participants. The free program focuses on industrial companies with electric monthly bills of $10,000 or less and carry a peak electric demand of 600 kW, he said.

Sponsored by Xcel Energy, the program requires the installation of a pulse-based meter which provides energy data to web-based energy tracking system from PowerTakeOff.

Peter Widmer, PowerTakeOff’s vice president, said in an email that many small businesses see energy as a “fixed or “uncontrollable” cost. Once they see data illustrating how cost savings can be achieved, “you quickly start to see a change in their approach and dedication to finding every opportunity to lower and control usage.”

So far the CEE pilot has identified, on average, an 8 percent savings on energy bills for participating companies. It’s up to clients, of course, to make the changes to reduce their energy.

Business customers using the technology can see when and how much energy they use throughout the day and night. They can see spikes in power use and whether they may be using too much energy after hours due to leaving equipment or lights on, Bengtson said.

The advantage, of course, is having utility data available by the hour, day, week or month. Typically electric bills arrive after the completion of each month and do not have usage broken down into time parameters.

The idea behind the program, and others like it, is to engage customers through technology to encourage energy efficiency — and create behavioral change. On the residential side Opower and other providers encourage energy conservation, while a number of companies offer the services to larger firms.

“Our customer segment is one that has been traditionally ignored,” Bengtson said. “It’s the small- and medium-sized industrial customer. Our focus has been to give feedback that helps them be more efficient in their operations.”

After the pulse meter is installed customers are asked to simply go about business as usual so the CEE can get a sense of common energy use. Both the CEE and customers can see their energy use in real time through a dashboard from PowerTakeOff and then chart it in different ways for analysis.

PowerTakeOff is a familiar name in energy data monitoring, with a Minnesota client list that includes 3M, Andersen Corporation, Mayo Clinic and Xcel.

Widmer wrote that the company’s dashboard and analytics engine aggregates “large sets of energy usage, weather, and building data into digestible information that enables users quickly determine the right operational questions to ask that ultimately lead to energy savings.”

After three months of energy monitoring an Energy Intelligence client receives a report and personal visits from the CEE that identify energy use patterns and suggested steps to reducing energy.

Those range in cost from little to nothing to more expensive options such as replacing equipment. The following two months the CEE and clients monitor the results of any changes, Bengtson said.

The program ends after six months, although in some cases monitoring will continue a brief period afterward. Often the impact of new heating and cooling equipment cannot be judged because the purchase comes after the pilot. CEE offers equipment assessments and suggests rebate programs to offset costs, Bengtson said.

Do businesses actually make moves to reduce energy? “Some are and some aren’t (engaged in energy efficiency),” he said. “That’s the challenge of this pilot program. We need to work on this product a little more to figure out who is the customer for this.”

While some customers might check the data feed 50 times a month, others have not bothered to look and have trouble understanding the dashboard. “There’s a huge range of engagement,” Bengtson said.

One of the issues is that the leaders of small industrial firms “wear many hats” and have small staffs without the time to focus on efficiency. Larger companies have sustainability departments or at least one person assigned to energy reduction, he noted.

Small firms have none. While CEE can train them on how to study the data and make suggestions, businesses must change their own behavior. “Only they can help themselves become more efficient,” Bengtson added.

Berkness is definitely a convert to real-time data. For example, he figured out how to stagger his machines to avoid paying peak demand pricing after studying the data from PowerTakeOff.

“I think it’s such a great that I think the monitoring such be attached to all meters,” he said. “It would improve energy efficiency in companies and save them money.”

The Center for Energy and Environment is a member of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.