Turning crisis into opportunity: 6 tips for measuring energy savings during the pandemic

Turning crisis into opportunity: 6 tips for measuring energy savings during the pandemic

Moira Zbella, Building and Sustainability Program Manager at Stanford University shares her insight on energy management during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has confronted the world with a novel situation that requires a novel response. Communities across the globe have responded quickly and empathetically to flatten the curve by social distancing, wearing masks, reducing travel, and in many cases sheltering in place. The virus itself and the ensuing response have had a significant impact on all of us, including on organizations and institutions who have been faced with the need to adapt to new circumstances on a large scale, such as employee health, shifting workforce locations, and local, state, and federal regulations. While the most important priority right now is on keeping our communities healthy and limiting the spread of the virus, this crisis also presents an opportunity to reflect on decreased resource consumption and how we might be able to sustain some level of austerity beyond this crisis that will impact organizational and global sustainability over the long-term.

Many organizations are experiencing decreased resource consumption during this time as commercial buildings are largely closed, and the resources required to operate them are not demanded. This is particularly true for energy use. While today’s decreases in energy use have arisen out of an awful situation, it is worth quantifying energy savings over this time to learn about your organization’s energy use patterns, better understand how energy savings are affecting your organization’s current costs, and quantify and extend your organization’s sustainability impact. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you endeavor to calculate energy savings during this time:

  1. Collect your energy consumption data from PG&E bills, interval data, via the tools available in your PG&E online account, and/or your facilities control system. If possible, use meter data for as granular a time period as you can. Capturing the precise time from when your buildings began shutting down to when they open back up is ideal. Avoid making assumptions.
  2. Compare your data from this “closure” time period to the exact same time period last year. Make sure to account for any changes in the last year that would affect energy use, such as occupancy changes or energy efficiency retrofits. Weather data has remained consistent between March and April 2019 and March and April 2020, but weather normalization of your energy data is recommended well. If there have been drastic changes or if weather normalization is not possible, instead use the “control day” method described below.
  3. As an alternative to comparing your data to the prior year, you can also identify control days during “normal operation" to which to compare the data. Control days should be roughly the same temperature, same day of the week, and have the same general occupancy patterns as the “closure” day. Subtract energy consumption of the “closure” day from that of the control day to identify savings.
  4. Explore your energy data during this time to learn about your building’s consumption patterns. How much has your hourly, daily, or monthly energy use dropped compared to “normal operation?” Is it more or less than you would expect? Are there spikes in your energy use at unusual times? What might be driving those spikes (especially if the building is fully unoccupied)?
  5. Use this opportunity to identify ways to continue saving energy in the future. If your building is unoccupied and most of the building systems have been turned off or turned down, your building’s current energy use reflects your “baseload” – plug loads, refrigeration, and other end uses that consume energy 24 hours a day. Reducing baseload is often the most cost-effective way to reduce energy costs. Can you reduce your building’s baseload? Are there other systems that have had a dramatic impact on energy use? For instance, if your building’s air conditioning was turned off, this likely had a major impact on energy use. You can review PG&E’s quick tips and easy-to-use resources (PDF, 277 KB) to help manage your business’ energy use.
  6. To the extent possible, consider energy displacement. If your employees are working from home, there is likely increased energy use in those residences compared to when they work from the office. While it is difficult to quantify this data right now, it might be helpful to footnote and look into later as more research on the impact of residential energy use from telecommuting versus that of commercial offices becomes available. In the meantime, consider sending some energy-saving tips to your employees to help them be good environmental stewards in their homes.

Quantifying changes in your energy consumption during this time is a great first step, but there are many other operational areas in which your organization has likely reduced its footprint during this time that should also be considered. For example, do your employees travel by air for work? Or do visitors frequently travel to your work location? If work-related air travel has been reduced during this time, your organization has played a role in reducing emissions from global air travel. These are referred to as Scope 3, or indirect emissions, as opposed to Scope 1 and 2 direct emissions from energy consumption and fuel combustion from buildings. Just like quantifying energy savings, it’s both feasible and beneficial to quantify the Scope 3 emissions impact of both reduced air travel and virtualized rather than in-person events.

Another category of Scope 3 emissions where you organization has likely had a positive impact is emissions related to employee commutes. With employees working from home, automobile and other emissions related to the transit sector have decreased. Many organizations are already considering ways to extend telecommuting in the future based on their experience during this time, and the positive emissions impact of doing so can and should be included in this decision-making process. Consider surveying employees about virtualized events, telecommuting, and other preferences to produce another set of decision criteria.

Finally, other resource consumption categories worth quantifying include decreased waste generation and reduced water consumption. Both have direct cost impacts and indirect energy and emissions impacts worth calculating. Ultimately, the work you put into measuring your sustainability impact now will serve the long-term purpose of informing future sustainability strategies—and by following the guidance here and using tools available through PG&E, it should be easy to do!