The matter of mastering a building's energy use, getting maximum performance out of each calorie and electron, is to many people a black art. Buildings account for about 40 percent of the U.S. energy appetite, as well as 40 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Department of Energy.
Experts say that applying energy efficiency to this area could make major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but actually achieving these savings is hard for a variety of reasons. For one, renters are often the people nearest the thermostats, and they have little incentive to turn them down, or up. Paying heating or air-conditioning bills is usually the landlord's job.
Even for landlords, the incentives and the tools to measure and save energy may not be there. When they think they're doing something about it, it may be an illusion. That's where Steve Heinz comes in.
For 30 years, he's been refining his master work: a piece of software that tracks thousands of utility bills and answers the question, "If I'm trying to save energy in my buildings, is it actually working?"
His latest refinement, a deal with AccuWeather.com, takes that question one step further: "If the weather changes from year to year, are my buildings still energy-efficient?"
EnergyCAP Inc. is the company based on this software. Heinz founded it in 1980, before most Americans had even sat down at a computer. For decades, he sought out universities, retail chains, governments -- anyone with a lot of buildings, a mountain of utility bills and no idea how to corral energy use.
Heinz sold them his software. He asked them how to improve it. Then, over the decades -- except for the brief period that Enron owned the company, then flared out -- he tinkered, tailored and polished.
You do need a weatherman
Now, building owners can look back through decades of utility bills and learn the truth about how energy-efficient their buildings are.
"The problem is, whenever you're comparing year-to-year, the weather is different," Heinz said. "If we don't make adjustments for the weather, it's going to skew our comparison and not be a meaningful indicator of energy management performance."
The past two summers in Washington, D.C., for example, stand out against the decade -- they were consistently hotter than other summers.
But if a manager doesn't know that, or can't measure it, he may wonder why his power bill grew 8 percent. If he's managing city buildings, spending $50 million to $60 million a year on utilities, 8 percent is plenty of money. Have the buildings lost the ability to stay cool?
Heinz said that's the point of this new EnergyCAP feature -- to isolate the weather factor and make a fair comparison to 2009 or 2007, when summer wasn't so hot.
The city manager's buildings may indeed have lost some of their "green" abilities, or they may have simply cranked up the AC to deal with the hotter summer.
Heinz' ever-updating software has a growing following. In April, U.S. EPA named it one of its Energy Star Partners of the Year. Last October, then-Gov. Bill Ritter (D) required the software for all Colorado government buildings that wanted to track their energy use.
Burial by energy bills
Fans of the software like it, in part, because it helps them stay organized as they pay hundreds, even thousands, of utility bills. An average building gets about five utility bills, Heinz said, including water, sewer, gas and possibly multiple electricity bills.
He said Washington, D.C., an EnergyCAP client, receives several thousand bills a month.
He learned an early lesson about that in 1978, as a recent graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He was stationed at Langley Air Force Base, in Hampton, Va., and he was in charge of the base's energy use.
"The utility bills came into the facilities office. A woman would stamp them as being approved without ever looking at them and sent them to accounts payable," he said.
January of 1978 was a record-breaking, icy winter. Months later, he found the water bill had swelled by $8,000 a month. Even more puzzling: The bill was for a backup water pump that was supposed to be turned off.
What's going on in this building?
Heinz and the plumbers walked out to the pump. They realized it had frozen in January, then burst. It had been hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of gallons into Chesapeake Bay for months. Heinz said it left an impression.
Those lessons are built into the software that Patrick Buchanan uses regularly. He's the energy manager at George Mason University.
The campus has about 168 buildings, including dorms, gyms, labs and more. Each month, 627 bills get dumped on Buchanan's office. Last year, the total energy bill was $13.5 million.
The school has made some energy-efficient changes in recent years, and Buchanan has used EnergyCAP to track the results. Rather than thumb through 600 bills, he clicks to compare dorms, classrooms, parking garages or anything else he wants.
"You can compare like buildings and say, 'Uh-oh, why is this building using more energy than this building?'" he said.
That's when Buchanan and his crew trot out to a building to check whether its energy-efficient systems are working as well as they're supposed to.
He estimated the university's energy savings at $2.5 million a year. "It's a tool to help us stay on top of our costs," he said.