Factoid: ‘Nerds’ Find a Way to Breakthrough Cloudy Skies with Bacteria-Powered Solar

Published to LA Confidential, Summer 2018

Solar power is a renewable choice that many of our clients have embraced as part of a slew of solutions to lower their carbon footprint.  However, what happens when it’s cloudy outside, and the sun does not shine?  Bacteria-powered solar cells may be the solution!

Researchers (Sarvesh Kumar Srivastava, Przemyslaw Piwek, Sonal R. Ayakar, Arman Bonakdarpour, David P. Wilkinson, and Vikramaditya G. Yadav) from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have created bacteria-powered solar cells (i.e. biogenic cells) that work efficiently in dim and bright light. Meanwhile, prior attempts from other research through the extraction of light-sensitive dye from genetically modified bacteria proved to be costly and complex.

The UBC researchers used E. coli genetically engineered to produce an abundance of lycopene (a molecule that gives tomatoes their orange/red tint), which is a sufficient natural dye and is excellent at collecting sunlight. The team coated the E.coli in a mineral that can be used as a semiconductor and applied the bacteria/mineral blend to a glass surface to generate their biogenic solar cell. Professor Vikramaditya Yadav, the project leader, said they recorded the highest current density for a biogenic solar cell. The research has been published in the most recent edition of the journal Small.

Although this innovative technology shows promise, there are still glitches to be worked out. Unfortunately, it seems that bacteria does not survive the process. The key involves finding a process that does not kill the bacteria, so they can produce dye indefinitely. If the glitches in the technology can be fixed cloudy days may allow us to shine a bit brighter with solar power.

Source: Bacteria-Powered Solar Cells Make Electricity Even With Cloudy Skies


Benchmarking: A First Step to Finding Savings

Published to LA Confidential, Summer 2018

Benchmarking shows a building’s relative energy efficiency compared to its past usage, and to similar facilities in the same geographic area. Such comparisons may help a building manager grasp potential savings if energy system upgrades were applied. Thousands of buildings are now participating in voluntarily and mandatory benchmarking programs. Many have found the process useful, and some may find that it offers a few surprises.

The main goal of such scoring is to inform a facility’s management about the scale of potential savings if it deploys now-common efficiency options, such as LED lighting, variable speed motor drives, and building-wide energy management systems (EMS). Merely re-commissioning an existing EMS has reaped significant reductions in energy bills and greenhouse gas emissions. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that buildings with a benchmark score of 75 in its Portfolio Manager program may use 35% less energy and cost $0.54 less per square foot to operate than its peers.

To decide which option(s) may best boost a benchmark score requires an understanding of how a building uses energy, through an audit performed by experienced energy analysts (aka “energy nerds). When a low score merely elicits that small step, it will have done its job. However, many building managers have gone a step further by engaging in demand response, and developing on-site power systems such as cogeneration and solar panels.

As of early 2017, about two dozen large cities or states (map below) have implemented mandatory energy benchmarking programs for many commercial and institutional buildings, based on square footage and ownership (some apply only to public buildings). Most of those ordinances involve use of EPA’s Portfolio Manager (PM) program, which has become the U.S. standard for voluntary and mandatory benchmarking.


To compare among buildings, PM uses the U.S. Department of Energy’s Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) database, covering about a million buildings. Every 3 years, it gathers energy data for 17 types of buildings, sorting them based on size, age, purpose, etc.

The end result is a set of tables PM uses to develop a percentile curve for each building type. If a particular type, such as a courthouse, uses less energy per square foot than the median for that type in its federal geographic district (e.g., the Northeast), it achieves a score above 50 (on a scale of 1 to 100). Note that a median is not the same as an average. It is based on quantities of entries, not an average of the values of those entries. If a facility manager (or owner, or board of trustees) sees a low score for its facility, it may be urged to apply upgrades to raise it. A building with a score of at least 75 may apply for ENERGY STAR certification and a decal to highlight its success.

As buildings cut their energy use and shift the curve, updating the CBECS database will result in lower PM scores. After August 26, 2018, a typical office building may see its score drop by 12 to 13 points relative to last year’s postings. All past scores will be automatically updated based on the new data, so facilities with a good score, (e.g., 61), may experience “PM shock” if it drops to an unacceptable 49.

Since 2009, New York City’s Local Law 84 (LL84) has driven the benchmarking of buildings with gross floor area over 50,000 square feet (10,000 square feet if NYC-operated). The Department of Buildings plans to include benchmarking of mid-size buildings (25,000-50,000 square feet). Facilities are advised to annually check the covered buildings list for their property. Properties on this list must submit data for energy use to the City annually to satisfy law requirements. If the property also has a “Yes” in the “Is this required to report automated water data from DEP?” column, automated data for water use from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) must be submitted. Occasionally, there may be a difference between your records and this list. If you believe a property should (or should not) be on the list, email benchmarking@finance.nyc.gov . A property’s status may change from yearly, so be sure to review the newest Covered Buildings List annually. A new list is available every February.

To offer additional incentive to improve efficiency, the City publicizes PM scores encouraging those with low scores to act. In 2020, The City will double down on the idea by labeling buildings’ entrances with grades (A-F) reflecting its PM scores.

Visit the ENERGY STAR Buildings & Plants page for free tips to improve scores. For professional guidance on making it actually happen, contact Luthin Associates. We have some of the best “nerds” in the business.

Will LEED’s New Focus on Energy Help Your Facility?

Published to LA Confidential, Summer 2018

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program was created and is maintained by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), a private non-governmental organization. While a step toward improving general sustainability in buildings, the “energy” in the LEED name led many people to believe it would place energy efficiency high on its list of suggested activities. Fossil fuel consumption by buildings, either directly or via electricity use, is one of the largest contributors of the greenhouse gases that impact climate change, the foremost challenge to our future sustainability.

However, as noted in 2017 by the Institute for Market Transformation: “LEED certification does not guarantee that a building is energy efficient, as there are many factors that contribute to the accrual of points which correspond with certification — points related to energy performance are accrued alongside points related to occupancy comfort, landscaping, building materials, among others.”

To educate and set standards for sustainability in existing (as versus new) buildings, in 2007 USGBC created LEED Operation & Maintenance (O&M), now referred to as LEED for Existing Buildings. Among the characteristics mentioned above, a relative few relate to energy efficiency. In its original form, LEED for Existing Buildings awarded only 2 to 15 points out of nearly 100 for it, based on scores from the Portfolio Manager (PM) program (see “Benchmarking: A First Step to Finding Savings” for background on PM).

In LEED’s fourth iteration (V4.0), many changes in the point ranking system have increased energy efficiency’s prominence. Some energy-related prerequisites were dropped, while new credits (e.g., demand response) were added. As stated in its promos, “starting with a focus on reducing energy demand through guidance related to energy usage and efficiency, and then also rewarding renewables, LEED raises the bar on energy and offers new solutions for achieving goals.”

Most noteworthy is the incorporation of the PM benchmarking process into LEED’s new Arc performance platform, which tracks annual energy performance against that of comparable buildings. Arc subsumes PM by incorporating PM data entry into the annual LEED re-certification process. To manage it, a partner of USGBC (Green Building Certification Inc.), spun off a separate company (Arcskoru Inc.) in December 2016. It claims that “Arc is the first-of-its kind platform to track a building’s incremental improvements through a performance score.” Some cities began using Arc in 2017.

However, regardless of such improvements, how does a LEED score help a building manager or owner use less energy and/or switch to renewable energy? LEED’s manual does contain a variety of recommendations for cutting energy use and cost, but little beyond the free information available from EPA’s ENERGY STAR program. Perhaps the main improvement will come by directing the attention of facilities already in the LEED program toward raising their LEED scores via energy efficiency and renewable resources. As for those not presently seeking or holding LEED status, the V4.0 changes are unlikely to help.

The complexities of maintaining LEED certification, like many energy-related tasks, can be daunting for facility and building managers. Luthin Associates has years of experience with such programs and stands ready to assist your organization in achieving, upholding, and raising its LEED score.

Con Ed Rolls out Smart Meter Data to All Customers

Published to LA Confidential, Summer 2018

While monthly energy use data is essential for benchmarking, interval data (e.g., usage in 15-minute or hourly periods) provides a wealth of additional insights on how a facility uses energy. For many years, Con Ed’s largest customers have had access to such data via meters that send data to the utility via telephone landlines or more recently via cellular communications. Often sporadic due to metering and communication problems, that process will soon be consigned to the technology scrap heap by new smart meters under the utility’s Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI) program.

Con Ed is replacing all electric meters by 2022 with units providing 15-minute consumption data for residential customers and 5 minute data for commercial billed customers. New smart gas modules will also be installed in the CECONY gas territory providing hourly data. That program (covering 4.8 million meters) is already underway. Find out when your borough (or county) will be involved at the Con Edison Smart Meter Installation page. All meters are being replaced, regardless of load, based on geographic location. As a result, many residential customers will have smart meters long before the commercial and industrial users that could make more immediate use of the data.

No action, aside from giving access to the existing meters, is required by customers. Con Ed is sending notification postcards to customers approximately 3 months in advance, followed by a letter about 45 days before its blue Smart Meter truck arrives. The actual work is painless, though there may be a brief pause in electric power during the meter replacement process. Online access to AMI data – at Con Ed’s MyAccount dashboard – should be available approximately two weeks after a new meter is installed. MyAccount provides tools for commercial customers to view their data with a weather overlay, or compare usage by hour, day, month or year. Customers can also download their interval data from MyAccount using the Green Button Download My Data tool.

Customers may then use their interval data to focus on issues that impact bills, (e.g., exactly when, and how often, a peak demand occurs), providing clues on ways to reduce it. Many customers chart interval data into daily load profiles to reveal night and weekend usage of equipment that should instead be shut off. Below see before-and-after 24-hour load profiles for one site. The cross-hatched area shows one day’s saved kilowatt-hours after the building’s equipment and energy management system were more tightly controlled.


Demand response (which requires interval data) may also become more viable as customers use their interval data to parse out major demand components with any eye to installing variable speed drives (or two-speed motors), dimming systems for lighting, or other measures to cut load when needed. Integrating solar and cogeneration into a building also becomes easier (and less financially risky) when a customer has a firm grasp on when on-site power will yield the best payback.

Con Ed will use data from its AMI system to improve its grid by giving it a deeper understanding of sub-hourly usage and voltages within its distribution lines, allowing for better voltage control, which will reduce energy consumption, and better outage response.

Securing the greatest value and understanding of interval data is enhanced by an expert’s eye, such as those offered by Luthin Associates. We have a long history of working with such data to help our customers save money and energy, while shrinking their carbon footprints.