data, Virtual Power Systems

Rich datasets unveil a wealth of information and value

In virtually every industry, one of the most pressing questions that companies must ask, and answer, is how much they are spending on manual processes in this day of automation and digital transformation.

This is no less true in collecting and managing energy data, where manual data collection and entry largely remains as the standard—albeit antiquated—process in energy data collection programmes.

That’s a troubling reality, and underscores that most companies don’t realize that the costs for manual data entry begin to add up long before anyone puts their fingers on a keyboard.

Today processing a single invoice manually involves at least seven distinct steps. According to one study, those steps collectively result in a cost of $12.01 to process a single invoice.

  • Send. Paper bills sent through the mail can take 3-5 days to arrive
  • Receive. Personnel are required to receive bills at company mail centres.
  • Prepare. Bills then need to be manually sorted and organized
  • Scan and Extract. Bills are scanned to create a digital copy and extract relevant data points
  • Email. Bill images are sent to various departments and job roles
  • Enter. Data then needs to be manually copied into a spreadsheet or application
  • Analyse. Finally, personnel are needed to analyse the data

In addition to these explicit costs, manual energy data collection comes with implicit costs that are even less often recognised or understood.

  • The cost of poor data quality: The cost of bad data falls between 15% percent and 25% of revenue for many companies. Further, on average, in-house data entry produces an error rate of about one percent. With the average bill containing up to 120 data points, that could mean at least one error on every bill.
  • The cost of delayed information: To make up for lost time spent on manual processes, a leading software provider used to spend tens of thousands of dollars a month on express mail fees to ensure that its customer would pay their bills on time
  • The cost of misused resources: Running a team of staff dedicated entirely to data entry is expensive. More importantly, scaling a team to grow quickly becomes unsustainable

What Is energy data?

When I talk about energy data, I consider the three fundamental building blocks critical to energy data management and analysis. 

  • Utility bill data
  • Whole building interval meter data
  • Real-time submeter data

Utility bill data refers to month-over-month consumption, cost, demand, tariff and charge information. Within the data is a wealth of information, including monthly data such as total energy consumed and how and when it was consumed (such as peak demand and the duration of on-peak and off-peak usage. This data is contained on invoices, as is a detailed breakdown of costs. But there’s more: usage charges based on tariffs are calculated, as are taxes on those charges, ratchet fees, and miscellaneous utility fees.

Whole building interval meter data. Interval data can be extracted from utility-installed submeters, revealing granular usage information down to hourly or even minute-by-minute intervals. This information is important because it tells you how the whole building is performing during different periods of the day, empowering energy managers to make faster decisions rather than waiting on a monthly invoice. It’s vital for finding usage patterns, spikes, or ramps in usage during heating and cooling periods. And it monitors and reports on energy for specific processes, such as for discrete production runs. 

Real-time submeter data. This data is critical for measuring extremely granular usage patterns – data recorded in set intervals, typically in minutes or seconds, and reported in real-time. It is critical for tracking pinpoint usage behaviour for different areas of the building such as the data center, or an HVAC system, or various sets of equipment on a production line. This data is important because it gives you real-time visibility. What’s more, these meters often wire data to other systems, sometimes in one-second intervals.

If you’re leading the sustainability team at a large commercial enterprise, all of this data is extremely important to help you reduce your organization’s consumption of electricity, natural gas or water; divert as much waste from entering landfills as possible; and save the company money. Without accurate data, or if it is disparate, then tedious and costly manual methods will only make your job harder.

Similarly, if you’re providing energy or facilities management services, where you process your clients’ utility bills, manually managing the variety and enormity of utility data points, in addition to the velocity at which the bills come in and must be settled, will at some point become unsustainable.

Automation: The next opportunity

As some companies remain blind to the opportunities for automating their systems and reducing costs, they also seem oblivious to the evolving needs of their customers. However, there are some progressive executives who have realized that the common denominator to delivering a high level of service to customers and scaling their own business simultaneously, rests with digitising the process. 

Still, the reality of the automation challenge is that there are multiple technologies of varying degrees of sophistication or technicality available for automating invoicing, and for overall energy data collection and management. Deploying those technologies within an end-to-end production framework can be daunting.

But the rewards are nearly immediate.

Automating energy data collection boosts operational efficiency, drives cost savings, and empowers energy management personnel to focus on what they do best – maximising energy efficiency and advancing innovation. But, where does one begin?

Automation helps one energy company scale

EnergyPrint uses energy utility data to generate business insights across buildings and portfolios. The Minnesota-based corporation gathers, inputs, and validates data from utilities — providing an administrative solution that reduces time and expense for building owners and professionals.

Managing over 10,000 utility accounts and adding new accounts each day, the administrative service found that it was devoting an increasing portion of its resources to manually collecting and validating utility bill data. Therefore, they could not spend as much time analysing energy opportunities and proving savings for its clients.

The company knew that time-intensive manual data collection and standardisation processes would keep it from improving its margins and meeting higher demand for its services. What’s more, manual data acquisition took a toll on delivering timely monthly utility analytics to customers.

To maintain its high level of service for its clients, the company was facing two options: bear the substantial personnel and training costs for managing its current methods, which would erode its margins, or take the new step to automate its energy data collection. EnergyPrint chose to modernise and automate to meet its goal of transforming accurate and validated data into relevant and useful insights to its clients faster and without sacrificing data quality.

Today, with a modernised process, the company:

  • Processes automated utility bills 300% faster than manually entered bills
  • Has increased operational efficiency, allowing the company to address the needs of more clients and provide greater insight into the data
  • Delivered the benefits of automation to customers without sacrificing data quality and accuracy

If there’s an imperative regarding energy data, it’s this: automate. And when you automate, you’ll begin to reveal data—and correlations in that data that deliver immediate insights—that you and your customers could never see or profit from before.

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Tim Porter, Director of OEM & Partner Sales at Urjanet

Tim Porter has more than 20 years of experience in sales and business development, specialising in technology and software. In his current position, Tim serves as Urjanet's global OEM and partner sales director, managing a team responsible for building relationships with energy and sustainability partners and expanding into international markets.