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Tracking Energy Usage Just Got Easier

Tracking Energy Usage Just Got Easier

Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s VERIFI tool tracks and collects energy data and uses it to predict future usage. And it's free.
Managers of manufacturing plants have a lot of energy bills to handle. But just paying them when they hit the desk does nothing to increase a plant’s efficiency or help understand how that plant is using energy and when it’s using it the most.
But now there’s a tool, produced by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, that allows users to track energy expenditure and model it for greater efficiency. Called VERIFI, for Visualizing Energy Reporting Information and Financial Implications, it’s available online or as a download, for free, for anyone hoping to keep better tabs on their energy usage.
“The best way to think about it is as a top-down, dashboard type of resource, that enables manufacturers to track utility bills and see how well their facility is operating,” said Thomas Wenning, program manager for industrial energy efficiency at the lab. “It empowers individuals within those organizations to easily track and report their sustainability progress, plus it provides pathways for users to dig deeper and find savings opportunities.”

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Of the 380,000-odd manufacturers in the country, only a few thousand are large enough to have a full-time, dedicated energy manager. The reality is that most manufacturers still rely on basic Excel spreadsheets to keep track of their energy usage and bills. With VERIFI, they now have access to a more sophisticated energy tracking system. They can enter as many facilities as they have into the software as well as the numbers for water, gas, electricity, and other energy sources, to better manage and predict energy costs. With the appropriate energy data entered, users can also use the software to quantify, track, and report greenhouse gas emissions.
“Once users enter enough utility bills, they can then start looking at trends and doing analyses,” said Kristina Armstrong, the engineering lead for the project. The program takes all that data and produces various visualizations and scatter plots to make possible correlations clear.
“If users enter their data on a regular basis, they will be able to see the trends. They’ll be able to actually see it as opposed to just paying a bill and moving on,” she said.
Those trends can be used to better anticipate energy usage against that biggest of variables—production levels and weather—allowing plants to better predict expenditures when operating under various conditions, so storms and wild deviations in temperature and production won’t produce a shock when the bills roll in.

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“When there are years with a polar vortex, and the weather's doing crazy things, your energy bills are going to be majorly impacted,” said Wenning. “Without having a better understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship of weather, production, and how their facilities operate, energy managers are just left waving their hands guessing at whether their facilities are performing better or worse.”
Now those correlations will be obvious. “You can say, ‘Look, if we didn't change our facility or implement any efficiency projects, here’s how much energy we would have used, given the production levels and weather,’ ” he said.
VERFI is the sibling of the lab’s previous effort, MEASUR, a tool that allows users to perform energy assessments and optimize the efficiency of various equipment and systems. The two tools may, someday, be combined for the ultimate efficiency/expenditure analysis tool. Because they are all free and open source, they aren’t in competition with shinier, more expensive programs. 
“Since it’s all open source, organizations and companies can freely take everything that has been developed and incorporate it into their own software,” said Wenning, “It’s all about maximizing the impact.”
Michael Abrams is a science and technology writer in Westfield, N.J.

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