Sustainable buildings are great, but rating systems have to catch up on energy-data-adds-value front


In this digital age, it’s always surprising to find major sectors of the economy that don’t fully get the opportunity of using data, especially real-time data, to drive better performance and create additional value.

Over the past decade and more, sustainability rankings for the built environment have become a huge commercial and environmental success story, turning ‘green buildings’ into the premium product.

Well done to all involved!

This is a triumph for initiatives like the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark (GRESB), internationally, and locally the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS), and also the Green Building Council of Australia’s GreenStar.

Australia is unquestionably a global leader in the building sustainability space, and the most recent proof of this is news that NABERS is set to migrate to Britain (as reported by The Fifth Estate).

But in spite of this international success, monitoring and sub-metering, especially for electricity, have remained stuck in a technology time warp – over-engineered, too expensive, and seriously underperforming (some would say downright clunky).

Yet we’re now into the era of the Cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), and Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Real-time data is the basic feedstock for this increasingly turbocharged digital era, connecting straight to the Cloud and feeding into multiple apps and services.

It’s an app store world, but the sustainability ranking sector still seems to spend a lot of time stuck in a spreadsheet cul-de-sac.

In Australia, this isn’t for lack of smart, passionate and committed people working on the next generation of sustainability rankings for buildings, including:

  • The NABERS Strategic Plan 2019-2023 (released April 2019)

  • GreenStar for New Buildings (released for consultation April 2019)

Nor for the international leaders, at GRESB, who have been recognising conceptually that metering and data need to step up to a next level. Indeed, a level with clear line-of-sight from a single metering device right through to aggregated enterprise-wide reporting, the kind of distributed accountability that can only be achieved with pervasive digitisation.

It’s worth noting that exactly this kind of data connectivity is also required for the Grid 2.0 future of electricity systems, so that distributed energy resources (DER) – including rooftop solar PV, home storage systems, energy efficiency, electric vehicles and controlled loads – can be operated effectively at local, network and market levels. (This is another major focus area for Wattwatchers across residential, commercial and industrial, and utility use cases, but that’s another story for another day.)

Back on sustainable buildings, GRESB says:‘… it is important for organisations to establish a clear chain of custody between points of measurement (e.g., meters) and their aggregated entity-level reporting. Breaks or opacity in this chain create doubt, uncertainty, and the potential for error. Leading companies will increasingly be expected to have robust, end-to-end systems to collect, manage, analyse, and communicate key performance indicators from across the enterprise.’


But there is still a big gap between identifying a business case for innovation, in this case for intelligent real-time sub-metering in commercial and industrial buildings, and actually doing it.

By the way, the value case is well-established, with a comprehensive Energy Metering and Monitoring Guide, published recently by the NSW Government, identifying 15-30+% energy savings from real-time monitoring with continuous feedback and commissioning, saying the benefits include: ‘Improved awareness, identification of opportunities for simple operational and maintenance improvements, implementation of energy efficiency projects with verified results, continuing management attention.’ This compares to 0-2% for installation of meters only, without any feedback.

At Wattwatchers we constantly hear stories and see evidence of metering requirements for sustainability being met as a tick-the-box exercise to secure a ratings point, where for example there needs to be evidence that meters are installed, but none that they have been commissioned and are being operated. It’s a cynical approach, and a failure to proactively secure the multiple benefits for monitoring with value-adding feedback, leading to a class of zombie meter installations that do no good for anyone.

But still there’s this institutionalised hesitancy, which is holding key regulators, influencers and operators back from wholeheartedly embracing Energy IoT.  For example, the new NABERS strategy for the next five years – a great document in many ways, with real ambition – talks to software tools, but is silent on the metering and other hardware required to capture the data that feeds the software, and communicates it to the Cloud.

NABERS talks about: ‘Using technology to amplify our reach.’

It promises: ‘NABERS will invest in and use technology to develop faster mechanisms for expansion into new sectors, and to scale-up its ability to reach its audience. Software innovation will also be used to streamline and improve existing NABERS tools and provide a ‘value-add’ to data and reporting services.’

But good data is a prerequisite for good software and analytics. These strategists also need to be focusing more on where the data comes from in the first place, and how it gets to the Cloud, as well as how it gets ingested into the promise of great software tools. The metering/monitoring is the chicken, and the software is the egg.

When Wattwatchers raised the lack of overt attention to where the real-time data comes from in the NABERS strategy, in a LinkedIn discussion, one of the architects of the framework, the Energy Efficiency Council’s highly-effective CEO Luke Menzel, was quick to respond, saying: ‘That is a really interesting point. The good news is I know that the role of real-time data, and interoperability with existing analytics offerings, is something … the NABERS team is thinking deeply about.’

SOURCE: NABERS strategic plan 

The Green Building Council, meanwhile, mentions ‘Verification and Monitoring’ in a single line item in a table, buried deep in its ‘GreenStar for New Buildings’ paper, saying it: ‘Promotes the installation, commissioning and tuning of buildings components and services. Metering and monitoring systems will also be installed to encourage the management of future ongoing operations.’

SOURCE: GreenStar for New Buildings

The NSW Government’s Energy Metering and Monitoring Guide, referenced earlier, speaks most obviously to an increasingly outdated would of Building Management Systems (BMS), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, and industry-centric communications protocols like ModBus and ZigBee, but only faintly to the new reality of the cloud, IoT and AI (they have, however, created a new four-letter acronym, RMRS, standing for remote meter reading system).

Reading through this Guide, meticulously compiled as it is, it’s clear there is an enormous amount of work still to be done to bring building energy management into the 21st century, in a contemporary digital era where data collected for energy management can do important other jobs as well, feeding into more value from asset performance and protection, predictive maintenance, tradable certificate creation and more.

So what is the state of play? It feels like progress is being made, albeit too slowly, and that the potential for change towards data-driven solutions is on the radar, if not yet squarely on the agenda. But time is money, and it’s also carbon pollution. So a lot of dollar value, energy savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions are being lost by not moving faster when the real-time data value proposition beckons so clearly.