Energy-smart buildings: Using powerful analytics to reduce environmental impact

25 October 2011 | Michele Bedford Thistle, Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

As part of Microsoft’s corporate goal of reducing our carbon emissions per unit of revenue by at least 30 percent by 2012 (compared with 2007 levels), we launched a smart building pilot project aimed at using technology to improve the energy efficiency of the buildings on our campus. As an individual, you may think of your carbon footprint in terms of the vehicle you drive or packaging you bring home from the store, however, buildings actually account for about 40 percent of the world’s emissions, easily making them one of the largest contributors. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with my colleague Josh Henretig about our smart building project and related whitepaper authored in collaboration with Accenture and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

What have we learned from the smart building pilot program?

One of the major takeaways from the pilot program (detailed in our white paper) is that we at Microsoft - and by extension, many other organizations with real estate portfolios - don’t actually need to undertake capital-intensive “physical” retrofits to cut building energy costs. Instead, we saw our buildings become dramatically more efficient by simply introducing smart software to harness and utilize the building systems that were already in use.

What are some of the benefits of smarter buildings?

Because buildings comprise 40 percent of the world’s energy use, using software to reduce energy consumption can have a measurable impact on combating the adverse effects of buildings on the environment. Beyond the emissions reductions, the cost savings can be equally dramatic. In the U.S. alone, for example, businesses annually spend about $100 billion in energy, and estimates predict that smarter buildings could save 20-25 percent of these national energy costs. 

Can you give me an example of the upfront expenditures required to achieve these types of savings?

Absolutely. The pilot program on our Redmond campus found that a smarter building solution can be established with an upfront investment of less than 10 percent of an organization’s annual energy expenditure, with an estimated payback period of less than 18 months. In its work with corporate clients (including companies outside of the technology industry), Accenture - which helped manage the Microsoft pilot - has achieved similar results. Generally speaking, deployments pay back in approximately 18-24 months, with an average energy savings of 10-30 percent.

How does software help cut energy waste?

By selecting software applications that add an analytical layer on top of our existing building management systems, we avoided the need to replace our existing infrastructure. These applications analyze millions of data points (i.e., samples) per day, allowing us to implement multiple improvements that are reshaping the way our buildings are managed. This is allowing us to realize energy savings in three principal ways:

  • Quickly detecting and diagnosing equipment faults so that building problems are addressed in a timely manner
  • Managing and prioritizing alarms from existing building systems so that engineers can focus on the most critical events
  • Integrating data from building systems with external sources, such as utilities and weather data feeds, while leveraging visual dashboards to help manage energy use and encourage employees to save energy

I should also add that not only are building engineers more productive, but our grassroots efforts are also more effective thanks to accurate energy consumption data that is used to educate and motivate employees. For example, Microsoft’s internal Sustainability Champion Program is expected to reduce plug load by 3-5 percent and will be leveraging the smart building solutions automated reporting features.

What role can energy-smart buildings play in public sector organizations?

Microsoft’s corporate campus in Redmond closely resembles a medium sized city, with 118 buildings with 14.9 million square feet (1.38 million m2) of office space, 30,000 pieces of mechanical equipment to be maintained, and an average daily consumption of approximately 2 million kWh of energy.

Energy-efficient cities provide one of our best opportunities to sustainably support our growing society through economic development, job creation and reduced impact on the environment. Many of our cities are not energy-efficient… yet. With energy costs and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions increasing as populations grow, cities that do not become energy-smart are at risk of becoming too expensive to compete economically with cities that do become energy-smart. The integration of information technologies with buildings can advance and accelerate a cities evolution to energy-efficiency so that they can sustainably provide economic growth and quality of life for generations to come.

Where can companies and public sector organizations find more information about how to replicate this program?

You can learn more about the pilot by reading an article by our chief environmental strategist Rob Bernard that posted recently in "Sustainable Facility". You can also download and read our white paper on the Redmond campus project.

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Michele Bedford Thistle
Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

About the Author

Michele Bedford Thistle | Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

Michele is focused on sharing stories from government customers creating real impact for citizens, employees, economies, and students. She joined the worldwide team from Microsoft Canada, where she was also marketing lead for several technology start-ups.