The “Push and Pull” of Energy Modeling Demand

Both need to happen simultaneously

“How many LEED points can I get? Do I quality for a specific incentive?”

To energy modelers, questions like these sound like a broken record.

Yet properly used, energy modeling can provide information that optimizes a building’s energy consumption, reduces life cycle costs and even reduces first cost.

“As we strive for more efficient buildings, and our codes become more demanding, we are nearing the end of the road with how much we can squeeze out of the prescriptive energy codes,” said Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT). “Increasingly, we are going to have to rely on performance based compliance, which will require building energy modeling.”

Today, the two biggest drivers of increased modeling demand—building owners’ need to comply with regulations and codes, and desire to comply with voluntary programs —do not necessarily best support the objective of widespread low-energy building design and operation.

Market demand was a key issue tackled at the Building Energy Modeling (BEM) Innovation Summit, a joint effort between Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), the U.S. affiliate of the International Building Performance Simulation Association (IBPSA), the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and IMT. The summit sought to convene a fragmented industry to improve modeling tools, processes and capacity (read the post-summit report).

Within the next decade, demand for energy modeling could go up in an order of magnitude. However, this is predicated on several market drivers that support the best uses of building energy modeling.

Demand Driver 1: Spurring Investment
A handful of large U.S. cities and states are enacting energy efficiency benchmarking legislation for commercial buildings. Washington, D.C. for example will require buildings to disclose information via a public website on both the buildings’ target energy use and actual use based on utility bills. Disclosure of the corresponding ENERGY STAR ratings may also be required.

These policies are game-changers, incentivizing investment in efficiency and holding design teams accountable for building performance.

“Energy disclosure creates a positive feedback loop for architects, engineers and others to learn from job-to-job how to do better—and be accountable for doing better,” Majersik said. “But it will be hard to mandate energy modeling at the current price. Currently, cost is the biggest impediment in the growth of energy modeling.”

Demand Driver 2: Increased Standardization Reduces Costs
Often, potential customers perceive the costs for energy modeling services to be prohibitive, and that acts as a brake on the energy modeling industry. Also, due to a lack of defined methods, practitioners follow a variety of processes in delivering energy-modeling services.

Standardized processes and increased automation could potentially increase energy modeler productivity, with the added benefit of producing consistently higher quality models.

“The energy modeling industry has a lot of room to mature in a variety of ways that can cut costs and improve the accuracy and quality of a model,” Majersik said. “Increased productivity would allow energy modelers to spend their time doing what they should do: focusing on design alternatives that optimize the building for efficiency.”

The Commercial Energy Services Network (COMNET) represents a first attempt to standardize and automate part of the modeling processes.

“Using COMNET, we estimate that approximately 60 percent of currently invested resources [in modeling] can be saved without changing the way people do business,” said Ron Nelson, a consultant at IMT leading their COMNET effort. “But modeling earlier and often, throughout the design process to optimize and guide potential savings means changing the way business is done currently.”

Ideally, as methods are streamlined and costs are reduced, building owners then take their savings and put them back into energy saving measures, maximizing the efficiency of the building.

Demand Driver 3: Consumer Awareness

To a client, it can be frustrating if projected costs and energy savings in a building don’t add up. However, very few building owners understand the benefits of having an energy modeler involved through the entire design process, from concept to implementation.

“There is a great deal of confusion in the market about the ambiguous role of energy modeling,” Nelson said. “Without understanding what an energy model can bring to a project, why would anyone commission a modeler with a perceived unnecessary cost?”

For energy modeling to assist with good energy efficiency decisions, it has to be part of an integrative design process. According to RMI’s post-summit report, a critical aspect of growing the BEM market is setting expectations.

“We [the industry] have the opportunity to educate people on what energy modeling is—and what it isn’t,” Nelson said. “If building owners and design teams want energy models to be useful in guiding decisions, then modeling has to be based on realistic expectations. The goal is to make modeling a valuable step in the design process to ensure that the right questions for the right applications are asked from the beginning.”

Driving the Industry Forward

Between the energy modeling applications that are already in play, and trends on the horizon that indicate largely untapped markets, the BEM industry could have a busy decade ahead.

A key recommendation of RMI’s report is the formation of a steering committee dedicated to: 

  • Aligning energy modeling market drivers with energy efficiency end goals
  • Leveraging collective market influence to help shift demand in support of the “best uses” of modeling,
  • Shifting negative market perception regarding the accuracy, quality and usefulness of energy models.

“Industry-wide momentum is emerging now that has not been around historically,” Majersik said. “We need to break out of the current dynamic and make sure energy modeling has the role it should in guiding efficient design.”