Cities of big data: Seattle gets more from less power

First of two parts. Read part two.

As the population in metropolitan regions continues to swell — 82 percent of Americans now live in cities — energy efficiency and water conservation are becoming critical aspects of many cities’ sustainability programs. Cities large and small are looking for ways to make their infrastructures leaner and greener, while adapting to a budgetary climate of limited resources.

Increasingly, cities are tapping into big data and analytics techniques to increase efficiency, provide better public services and save money. Seattle, for example, has forged a partnership with Microsoft and Accenture aimed at reducing power consumption through real-time data analysis of different types of buildings in the city’s downtown area. 

At a glance


Population: 634,535; 4 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area

Project: Partnership between the City of Seattle, Microsoft, Accenture and the Seattle 2030 District, aimed at reducing power consumption through real-time data analysis of four Seattle buildings.

Goal: Reduce downtown energy usage by 25 percent with smart buildings.

The city has a deep legacy in clean energy and conservation, as a user of hydroelectric power for more than 100 years. As one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, though, the demand for power continues to rise. Rather than augmenting power with unclean or unsafe energy sources, the city has chosen the conservation path, in this case managing energy usage in buildings within the city.

But how do you do this when building property owners don’t have the resources or don’t want to spend money on retrofitting buildings to make them more energy-efficient? Could cloud technologies, predictive software and analytics tools help the city make buildings smarter?

Microsoft, which had applied those technologies on its own campus and achieved energy savings of 10 percent, proposed doing the same for Seattle by leveraging the Microsoft Azure cloud and predictive analytics to harness the volumes of data generated by disparate building management systems and sensors, said Brian Surrat, deputy director of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development. In 2011, Seattle received an Energy Department grant to invest in next-generation energy-efficiency technologies and, as a result, launched a smart-building program.

Microsoft, Accenture and the city recently launched an energy-management pilot powered by the Azure cloud platform across four buildings in Seattle’s downtown business core. In addition, the city consulted Seattle City Light, the local electric utility, and the Seattle 2030 District, a nonprofit consisting of 90 downtown building owners. The pilot includes a mix of buildings representing a cross section of uses, including the Seattle Municipal Tower, Sheraton Hotel, a Boeing manufacturing facility, and the University of Washington School of Medicine’s research building, Surrat said. 

The goal is to generate savings of between 10 and 25 percent for both energy and maintenance expenditures with the view of more buildings adopting smarter technologies for energy efficiency.  Azure provides storage for terabytes of real-time data. Microsoft SQL Server offers the data services for processing real-time analysis while the company’s SharePoint Server 2013 provides the reporting portal where building managers can monitor the energy efficiency of their facilities, said Bill Mitchel, senior director of Microsoft’s World Wide Public Sector.

The challenge is being able to collect and ingest data from a broad set of buildings across the city, Mitchel noted. “The cloud is the only way to tackle this; it would be cost-prohibitive with hardware in each facility,” Mitchel said.

A cloud infrastructure allows engineers to correlate large data sets from multiple machines, tying energy-efficiency data with fault detection analytics or even weather information and other data that might have an impact on a building’s power usage, said Kreg Schmidt, managing director of Accenture Smart Building Solutions, which has a suite of technologies and third-party tools for energy management. The partners have deployed Ezenics’ optimization and fault detection software that pulls data from disparate BMS and control systems and, using advanced algorithms, analyzes the performance of the equipment. 

“That’s the golden goose in terms of driving efficiency because now you can easily identify the equipment that is out of tune,” Microsoft’s Mitchel said.

The goal is to see if a cloud backbone and advanced analytics can unify all of these disparate systems in a real-world environment, Surrat said. It’s one thing to work on the Microsoft campus where the business owners, property managers and engineers know their facilities. In the pilot, disparate owners, building managers and engineers are working together to unify system data and information onto an agnostic cloud platform.  

“We’re hoping additional meaningful data will start to emerge by the end of this year, first part of next year,” Surrat said. Accenture’s Schmidt is a bit more optimistic, noting that the pilot participants should start seeing energy-saving results from the data within the next two months.

NEXT: Dubuque’s model for other cities.


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