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What is Intelligent Efficiency?

As MEEA continues its efforts to make valuable contributions to the national conversation on intelligent efficiency, it’s important to step back and take a moment to define this somewhat nebulous concept. ACEEE has done a great job of helping energy efficiency stakeholders understand what this term means through several research reports, web outlets and two high-quality conferences on the subject. Their 2013 report, Intelligent Efficiency: Opportunities, Barriers, and Solutions, defines intelligent efficiency as:

“…the deployment of affordable next-generation sensor, control, and communication technologies that help us gather, manage, interpret, communicate, and act upon disparate and often large volumes of data to improve device, process, facility, or organization performance and achieve new levels of energy efficiency.”

It’s a bit of a mouthful, but it gives us a useful framework. MEEA gets a lot of questions about this from our stakeholders, and we’ve realized that it isn’t always obvious what makes efficiency “intelligent.”

Here are a few lessons MEEA has learned that might help clear things up:

The system is greater than the sum of its parts

A central idea behind the concept of intelligent efficiency is that savings can be accounted for at the system level. This is contrary to more traditional energy efficiency approaches that rely on discreet measures and deemed savings. An intelligent efficiency system may have many contributing components, such as sensors, software, dashboards, algorithms and controls, all working in tandem to bring about deep energy savings.

The opposite of intelligent efficiency isn’t dumb efficiency

Calling this new wave of developments “intelligent” doesn’t mean traditional efficiency efforts or measures have less value – rather, intelligence means those efforts or measures are “adaptive, anticipatory and networked” (Elliot, Molina, & Trombley, 2012).

Intelligent efficiency doesn’t mean Artificial Intelligence

For most of these solutions, humans are still the critical element, as they simply enable users to make better, faster decisions and improve upon inevitable behavioral inconsistencies. A recent paper from the Information Technology Industry Council predicts that these systems “will encourage a significantly greater number of uses and users, facilitate a more collaborative engagement of consumers and producers, and amplify learning and productivity” (Laitner, McDonnell, & Keller, 2015).

The savings potential is worth your attention

ACEEE estimated the annual energy cost savings potential for the commercial and manufacturing sectors from intelligent efficiency to be $50 billion (2013). In the industry-heavy Midwest, the potential for savings is massive.

Efficiency as a concept hasn’t changed…

Stephen Lacey of Greentech Media says “at its core, energy efficiency is still about the nuts and bolts of changing equipment and improving the physical components of a facility. Information is not a panacea and is not a substitute for the physical integration of new systems. But it is becoming the glue binding the holistic, system-wide approach that is starting to define the intelligent efficiency business” (2013).

… But, intelligence could change the way we do it

By predicting the weather, enabling communication across production lines, providing real-time savings measurement and verification, preventing savings degradation, enabling system self-diagnosis and prioritizing maintenance needs, dematerializing infrastructure systems, enabling energy managers to collect and analyze large amounts of complex data, and enabling access to a host of non-energy benefits heretofore unavailable to traditional efficiency approaches, intelligent efficiency has the potential to maximize, expand and dramatically improve existing efficiency efforts.

So how do you tell if something is intelligent efficiency or not? For MEEA, whether or not a solution fits into these parameters is less important than its potential to improve how we do energy efficiency in the Midwest. For many consumers and energy managers, the non-energy benefits of smart, networked devices and systems are already changing the economics of efficiency opportunities. For utilities and program administrators, we are already experiencing a wave of new products, solutions and platforms that can be employed as exciting, new program measures or as useful tools that enhance the delivery and management of programs.

Whatever the technology, if it helps us collect and act on big data, enhance device and process efficiency, enable system-wide performance improvements, or adapt to changing conditions, we’ll call it intelligent, and we’ll encourage all our stakeholders to take a closer look.

Further reading

Elliott, N., Molina, M. & Trombley, D. (2012). A Defining Framework for Intelligent Efficiency. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Research Report E125. Link to report.

Lacey, S. (2013). Intelligent Efficiency: Innovations Reshaping the Energy Efficiency Market. Greentech Media Special Report. Link to report.

Laitner, J.A., McDonnell, M.T., & Keller, R.M. (2015). ICT-Enabled Intelligent Efficiency: Shifting from Device-Specific Approaches to System Optima. Digital Energy and Sustainability Solutions Campaign, Information Technology Industry Council. Link to report.

(2015). Opportunities for Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS) in Advancing Residential Energy Efficiency Programs. Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, Research Report. Link to report.

Rogers, E.A., Elliott, R.N., Kwatra, S., Trombley, D. & Nadadur, V. (2013). Intelligent Efficiency: Opportunities, Barriers, and Solutions. American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Research Report E13J. Link to report.

2015 ACEEE Intelligent Efficiency Conference

Earlier MEEA Unplugged post on intelligent efficiency efforts