BigDataBigBuildingsU.S. President Barack Obama set a new goal for America during his State of the Union address this week. He challenged states and municipalities, homeowners and businesses, to do more with less when it comes to energy consumption.

“Let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years,” said Obama, adding that states that stepped forward with the best ideas would get financial support from the federal government to make it happen.

Obama’s words echoed recommendations that came out just a week earlier by the Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy, a coalition of U.S. energy utilities, academics, industry and environmental groups.

It urged an effort to double energy productivity by 2020, a move that would create an estimated 1.3 million jobs, slash $1,000 a year from household energy bills, give a boost to GDP, decrease energy imports by $100 billion a year, and save U.S. industry a whopping $169 billion a year.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, called it a “huge and largely untapped opportunity.”

It may seem a daunting task, but whether you’re talking about the United States or Canada, doubling productivity can be done, should be done, and elsewhere around the world, it has been done.

The U.S. and Canada rank 8th and 12th respectively out of G20 countries when measured by energy productivity. You could call that middle-of-the-road, but when compared to leaders like Germany and Japan, we’re closer to the ditch.

America consumed the equivalent of 83,561 kilowatt-hours per capita in 2011. Canada was a bit higher, at 86,101 kilowatt-hours. Both are among the bottom of the global pack.

Germany, at 46,702 kilowatt-hours, and Japan, at 45,477 kilowatt-hours, are among the top. Both seem to be doing just fine but without the kind of waste that Obama is intent on targeting.

Tighter building codes, stricter vehicle emission standards, serious attempts to recycle waste heat at industrial facilities, and better tax breaks for companies that install more energy-efficient equipment are just some of the options that should be on the table.

Screwing in energy-efficient light bulbs, while great, can only take us so far.

Buildings are particularly ripe for the picking, accounting for well more than 40 per cent of all energy consumed in North America.

Yes, “new” construction is getting more efficient, including all the LEED-certified silver, gold and platinum buildings sprouting up across cities like Toronto and Calgary.

But we’re barely scratching the surface, and to a large extent we’re neglecting the big, deep savings that can come from retrofitting or optimizing the operation of our existing building stock.

Part of the problem, explains Dan Seto, founder and president of Toronto-based CircuitMeter, is that there is a lack of information about how buildings function on a day-to-day, even minute-by-minute basis. He calls commercial buildings “black boxes” – difficult to see inside without the use of expensive energy-monitoring technologies.

“Once you get granularity of information, it opens up the door,” says Seto.

CircuitMeter is part of Seto’s attempt to stick a foot in the door, pry it open, and liberate that data – what amounts to the pulse and other vital signs of a “living” building. “We thought there has got to be a better way to do this.”

The company has designed a low-cost and relatively easy-to-install device called WebMeter, which can monitor the electricity flowing through up to 36 individual circuits in a building’s circuit board. Readings from these meters are stored on outside computer servers – “the cloud” – and can be accessed and analysed any time through the Internet.

“It puts a living, breathing building at your fingertips so you can start figuring out how that building is operating per square foot or employee,” says Seto, explaining that the device can detect problems with equipment and lighting and send alerts. “We can tell if a 2-watt LED light bulb has stopped working if we have to.”

Now, to be clear, there is no shortage of energy monitoring devices and gizmos in the marketplace. What CircuitMeter is offering is a way to overcome the cost barrier. Seto says WebMeter costs less than $30 per circuit, versus $200 and up to $700 per circuit for other monitoring technologies. “In general, we’re about one-tenth the cost.”

CircuitMeter also doesn’t make claims that it will reduce a building owner’s energy bills. What WebMeter does it liberate data – lots of it—by getting deep inside the black box. Once that data tsunami is released, a near-infinite numbers of applications can surf on top.

It will also be a useful way to verify savings from big energy retrofit projects, which is increasingly a condition of financing. “We’re only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the applications,” says Seto, who last week snagged early-stage financing from the MaRS Cleantech Fund and Robert Macintosh, co-founder of the Pembina Institute in Calgary.

Seto is encouraged by Obama’s big commitment to increase energy productivity. Canada, at some point, will be forced to get with the program.

“There’s big momentum out there to get focused on conservation,” he says. “I think the timing for us is very good.”

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

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