By: Kathleen Wolf Davis
100-year-old Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) is the largest electric utility in that tiny state, serving about 1.2 million customers. All those years of experience have taught CL&P a thing or two about crafting customer service programs, especially in the area of retro-commissioning.
For those of you not “in the know,” here’s a short primer on retro-commissioning that breaks it down like an old ‘70s episode of Saturday morning “Schoolhouse Rock.” It goes like this: Let’s separate “retro” from “commissioning” and start with the root word. The concept of commissioning comes from shipbuilding. A commissioned ship was, in a sense, certified to be a good little boat: It had passed all the preset milestones and requirements to be commissioned. So, applying this to buildings (which is what CL&P is doing in this case), a commissioned building has passed all its tests to be labeled up to snuff (and, with the utility, energy efficient in many cases).
Putting back in that prefix “retro,” retro-commissioning is applying those tests to an already existing building that didn’t have the commissioned status before—okaying it after the fact.
“Retro-commissioning is different than most other programs in that it doesn’t focus on capital equipment replacement like lighting, but rather equipment controls and the behavioral aspects of how the building is controlled,” noted Timothy Simmonds, assistant manager with CL&P who knows all about retro-commissioning. He helps oversee commercial energy efficiency programs for both Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) and Yankee Gas. (CL&P and Yankee Gas are two of five utilities that administer the Energize Connecticut program that includes retro-commissioning.)
In essence, retro-commissioning is about understanding a building as a personality of sorts: There are behavioral issues, as Simmonds noted. Is the building operating the way it should, the way it’s supposed to? Is the automation working as intended? If those questions can be answered accurately and any “no” solved properly, the savings can be larger than even capital-intensive retrofit programs, according to Simmonds, with a rate between two and fourteen percent on savings.
“The program allows us to get deeper savings across a broader energy efficiency program offering. It gives us another tool to achieve our efficiency goals,” he added.
Simmonds tracing the retro-commissioning part of Energize Connecticut back to a pilot program seven years ago when CL&P wasn’t alone in thinking retro-commissioning could be an operational motherload: A number of utilities were all thinking about similar programs at the time to boost savings and operational improvements. CL&P mulled over the savings numbers and potential barriers to this type of program with the pilot. The numbers ended up happy, and today the retro-commissioning program “focuses on commercial offices with a building management system (BMS) or energy management system (EMS) already installed with a lot of data behind these systems,” Simmonds said.
Energize Connecticut brings in one of four core external commissioning agents to work with building engineers to “peel back the layers of this data to see how each building’s controls react to things like occupancy and weather.” Then, everyone sits down and chats about how things can be done even more efficiently.
“The program is progressing very well. As more of our commercial and industrial customers learn about retro-commissioning and the benefits, the more they are interested in it,” Simmonds said.
Those core agents have been so busy lately due to the program’s popularity that Energize Connecticut is bumping its external agent numbers to 12 or 14 in the near future.
The popularity is up for CL&P, but there is a downside to retro-commissioning: time spent. Answering all those questions and finding solutions to a no or two (or twenty) can take awhile. And we’re not talking weeks here. We’re talking years. It could take a year for data mining and analysis, and it could take another year for design and implementation, training and updates to manuals.
“If you do retro-commissioning the right way, it shouldn’t just be a quick tune-up,” Simmonds said. “You really need to spend time on the engineering side to make sure you properly analyze the data to implement the right controls measures and then making sure they are delivering the savings.”
But, CL&P does understand concerns that this takes too long, and they are looking to streamline the process with their external agents to “shorten the time to savings by having agents focus on the most common issues that will deliver high ROI. We want to streamline that two year process as much as possible, to say, one year.”
One way to shorten that time process: Better analytics.