UC Berkeley REFS Blends Building and Behavioral Science

UC Berkeley Captures Energy Savings by Empowering Building Operators

DOE, August 12, 2016

University campuses are a treasure trove of energy efficiency opportunities, as their facilities teams will tell you. The challenge is not in identifying opportunities for savings, but in finding the time to pursue them among competing demands for facility teams’ time. Keeping systems running to meet the needs of teaching and research will always be priority number one for these stakeholders, often making it harder to consider day-to-day energy performance to reduce operating costs.

Given that reality, the Campus Energy Office at UC Berkeley wondered, what would happen if they created a project that focused on the human element in the energy efficiency equation – namely the building operators and facilities managers (FMs)? What if a project helped the people running the buildings do their jobs by providing clear and relevant information at the right time, rather than simply procuring more data that would require time to interpret, or new dashboards or analytics?

So began the UC Berkeley REFS project, short for Rapid Efficiency Feedback and Support. The idea was simple – distill the available real-time energy data for the campus buildings down to what is relevant and what is within the control of building operators, and then deploy that information effectively and unobtrusively to empower operators to use it and experiment. (Spoiler alert: It worked!)

The UCB Campus Energy Office partnered with Buildings Alive, a Sydney-based energy efficiency company, to design the REFS project using the principals of behavior science combined with building science and data science. The Campus Energy Office and Buildings Alive collaborated with the UCB Center for the Built Environment (CBE), the Building Technology and Urban Systems Department (BTUS) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), and the University of Sydney (USYD), Australia, combining the best thinkers in building science and behavioral science on two continents.

The program, based on the Buildings Alive program for large commercial building owners, is simple and customized for Berkeley. Building operators receive daily feedback detailing energy performance from the day prior, which is normalized for factors outside of their control, like weather events and the academic calendar. These messages represent the “tip of the spear”, but allow FMs to leverage modeling and analytics designed to help them answer questions in real time, without the need for log-ins or software training. The Campus Energy Office also receives this information and provides engineering support to FMs to help them fine-tune facilities. In the background, the energy management system tracks, measures, and verifies the results of the actions taken by FMs, so results are clear for all to see.

Ultimately, 53 buildings were selected for participation, and the results are impressive. Despite a campus administrative reorganization during summer 2015 that shuffled FMs and reduced facilities and energy office staff, the 53 buildings have attained daily average energy savings of 4 to 13% and total savings of 1.7 million kWh equating to $185,000. These savings are in addition to those accrued previously through existing pay-for-performance incentive programs. Nearly all of REFS savings result from operational improvements (as opposed to capital projects) attributed to the effort of the facilities staff at UCB where FMs were enabled by better information and the ability to see the impact of their actions.

A project like REFS was made possible by the evolution and adoption of technology (i.e. smart meters and sensors) coupled with increasingly smart algorithms, but distinct in that these tools were deployed through the lens of behavioural science and organizational support.

“A lack of understanding of the reality of the job is where many efficiency efforts miss potential savings,” says Kevin Ng, energy manager at UC Berkeley. “Traditional approaches like retrofits or commissioning, and even new approaches like automated fault diagnostics and ‘real time’ data platforms, sometimes make it harder to do this job, not easier.”

The REFS project clearly demonstrates the value of providing the right information and developing an internal culture that values experimentation and energy expertise. “The REFS program speaks to the potential of how we may improve approaches to energy management by providing FMs a seat at the table alongside engineers and technology companies, and allowing their values and ideas to be integrated into building operations,” says Ed Arens, Ph.D., director of the UCB Center for the Built Environment. That cooperative culture, Arens says, develops when FMs are empowered to act and able to see the impact of their work through the noise.

Ng agrees that the culture change has paid off. “It has become common for FMs, who are mostly academic departmental staff, to notify their asset and facilities teams when energy use increases are observed in the daily messages, and offer explanations and suggestions as to what to do next.”

This dynamic, Ng says, is the key to success. “Often, the solutions to these energy spikes require a collaborative approach with the FMs becoming the first responder. Our FMs have the best understanding of the research, teaching, and learning activities in their respective buildings, so they are best positioned to understand the nature of the problems and solutions.”

If you’d like to learn more about UCB’s efforts to save energy, check out their recent Better Buildings implementation model.

Image Credit: Seán A. O’Hara