Q&A: How ‘Smart Cities’ can help fight climate change

mark brown

Mark Brown is the COO of Accelerated Innovations LLC in St. Paul.

Last week, President Barack Obama’s administration announced the new $160 million “Smart Cities” initiative that includes efforts to manage the impact of climate change.

Among the businesses selected by the White House to participate in the climate-focused area of the program is St. Paul-based Accelerated Innovations LLC, developer of a behavioral energy savings platform called MyMeter.

“It’s exciting to be part of this initiative,” said Mark Brown, chief operating officer. “It’s really an opportunity to work around the country on helping building owners in cities collaborate to reduce their energy use.”

Under the administration plan, Accelerated Innovations will offer training through Envision America, a new nonprofit dedicated to deploying new technologies to reduce use of energy, waste and water, as well as improve air quality.

The company’s technology is now being used by building owners participating in Envision Charlotte, a six-year-old effort to make the downtown of the North Carolina city the most energy efficient in the country.

Accelerated Innovations will help select 10 cities for an “Envision” three day boot camp in January in Charlotte. The idea is to teach civic leaders, business leaders, utility personnel and others from communities selected about Charlotte’s experience – and those of other cities – working on those issues.

The company’s software platform allows residential and commercial customers to see their energy use in 15 minute increments on a website, receive timely updates on their energy reduction goals, alerts (including text messages) and other data intended to change human behavior to reduce usage.

Offered by 30 utilities in 15 states and two countries, MyMeter has attracted more than 264,000 users since opening in 2008.

Speaking from Charlotte, Brown spoke about the challenges of promoting energy efficiency.

Midwest Energy News: What roles do cities play in reducing global warming?

Brown: Cities are where most people live in the United States. If we can begin to save energy there we can have a big impact. And cities have been national and international leaders in reducing carbon pollution.

How did the energy efficiency project work in Charlotte?

It began five years ago as a part of a kickoff to the Clinton Climate Initiative and included Duke Energy, one of the sponsors (and the local utility). Charlotte’s leaders came up with the goal of becoming the most sustainable urban core in America – and not just in energy but water, waste and air quality.

What was the process?

The city had a number of stakeholders who made a real commitment to a defined goal. In the core 61 office buildings signed up to monitor their energy use in Charlotte’s Uptown neighborhood. The goal is to reduce their energy consumption by 20 percent.

Has it expanded?

Envision Charlotte is working to enroll more than 200 buildings in the program now. We were invited into the program last year when it was expanded and we started working in the city in September.

Talk about how you make buildings more efficient.

In Charlotte and in Minnesota we’ve offered technical assistance and a lot of information on best practices. You really want to help them optimize building performance and to get that you have to have good operator engagement. Along with that is tenant engagement because that can really make a difference.

By tenant engagement do you mean things like contests to see which floor in a building can save the most energy?

Yes, many companies and buildings created teams that focused on energy reduction – turning off monitors at night, power strips, and so forth. We like to see employee engagement like what we’ve seen in Charlotte, although other approaches work. Minneapolis and other cities mandate that offices report energy usage, which can be part of the approach.

Do you think any Midwest cities should participate in Envision America?

We’re certainly hoping to see some Midwest cities apply. We grew up in rural electric co-ops in the Midwest and now we’re working with investor-owned utilities in the region.

In Madison we’re working on reducing peak demand during the summer months by leveraging smart meter information and tying that in with energy management and building automation systems to put load reduction strategies in place. We’re working with Minnesota Power in Duluth to have that city be a leader in driving efficiency and sustainability. We’re also working with District Energy in St. Paul on improving the energy efficiency of their clients.

Any other intriguing clients?

We’re also doing some work on the residential side with Weatherbug, the world’s largest weather station network. People spend less than one minute a month on utility bills but they spend an hour on getting weather data. If we can get people engaged with weather data we can help them see how that can relate to energy performance in their homes.

You have any technology you’re going to unveil?

We’ve been working on an app buildings can download that can help with community engagement. They will register, tell us what building they work in and then we can assign them a team to participate in projects reducing energy use.

Beyond information, tenant engagement and installing energy efficient lighting and appliances is there one key to making these programs work?

You have to measure your results. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

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