The Energy Act of 2020 (EA2020) is adding momentum in the march toward a lower-carbon future. Described as the most comprehensive overhaul of federal energy policy in nearly two decades, EA2020 was passed with bipartisan support and tackles everything from programs leading to smarter and more energy-efficient federal buildings to the development of advanced nuclear reactors.

Among many other initiatives, the act: gives the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) authority to require a range of energy and water efficiency improvements at civilian and military facilities of all types; invigorates the preexisting Better Buildings Challenge program; and advances sustainable practices on a number of other fronts.

Data-Informed Decisions

Though many agencies are still grappling with the details of EA2020, it is highly likely that most federal civilian and military facilities will adopt an “all-of-the-above” strategy to comply with energy efficiency mandates. One of the first requirements is for each federal agency to develop and submit a plan for compliance to the DOE. These plans are likely to outline several viable strategies to be implemented over the coming years.

It's easy to predict that data-driven solutions will be the cornerstone of these energy efficiency improvement programs.

One specific requirement under the act is for federal facilities to develop energy management information systems (EMIS) to monitor actual levels of energy savings. The EMIS requirement is almost certain to be the impetus for efforts to optimize performance of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and other types of equipment that consume significant amounts of energy.

Automated fault detection and diagnostic (AFDD) systems serve as the foundation of an EMIS. Consisting of interconnected networks of sensors and other devices to gauge performance of HVAC and other equipment, AFDD systems feed continuing streams of data in real time to centralized controls programmed with analytics and diagnostic capabilities that let operators know if any piece of equipment is “faulting,” meaning it is not performing at optimal standards for efficiency. This data presents a picture of energy efficiency while also letting operators know if critical components are wearing out prematurely and need to be replaced before a catastrophic failure.

These programs are typically part and parcel of monitoring-based commissioning (MBCx), an approach that is gaining traction among facility owners and operators in public and private sectors. MBCx programs are highly automated, year-round programs that use sophisticated controls technology to give operators the visibility they need to make data-driven capital investment decisions. In fact, MBCx receives a boost under the act because owner/operators who implement these programs can qualify for a waiver that exempts them from a requirement to perform retro-commissioning of their facilities every four years.

Actual Results

A pilot AFDD project performed for a large defense systems manufacturer demonstrates that significant energy savings can be achieved through these programs. The scope of this relatively small pilot was to monitor and analyze performance of selected air handlers and other HVAC equipment within a single building on a large campus. Using SkySpark, a monitoring and diagnostics technology platform, our project team gained visibility into how the equipment was performing and then analyzed factors that could cause equipment to perform less efficiently over time.

Even with a small sample size, the project revealed a significant potential for energy cost savings. Three of the eight air handlers investigated in the project were performing so poorly the company could have saved $5,000 in monthly energy costs on these handlers alone, had the proper analytics system been in place.

Convergence of Sustainable Practices

Energy efficiencies and reductions in CO2 emissions are a primary goal of EA2020, but it also promises to create the impetus for a range of sustainability practices that have implications beyond energy savings in the federal sector. Though the act has no enforcement teeth beyond the federal sector, it is easy to imagine best practices filtering from federal to privately owned facilities.

Options to reach these goals increasingly depend on controls technology. To justify investments in monitoring and controls technologies, a broader lens is required to examine the total scope of operational savings that can be achieved.

Sophisticated controls will achieve more connected operations with applied analytics of data that is often already available. Those applied analytics should be viewed as opportunities to mitigate risk. For many years, perhaps even decades, the biggest risk in delivering a world-class building depended on the type of controls system that was installed. Could it let the facilities team see how everything was performing? Could it give a warning if devices or equipment were wearing out before they were supposed to? Could it help operators see why this was happening?

Buildings and the critical systems necessary for daily operations start to degrade on the day that the design-builder hands over the keys to the owner-operator. Without controls and sophisticated software to analyze the volumes of data they generate, owners are always fighting uphill with degradation accelerating each passing year, often resulting in a daunting deferred maintenance backlog.

One of the most exciting outcomes of EA2020 will be the strong likelihood that sustainable practices will come to be defined as those steps that keep facilities operating as efficiently as possible — with dramatically lower energy use — far longer than in the past. Both the public sector and private sector are recognizing there is a convergence of sustainability, reliability, energy efficiency and carbon reduction. Metrics to measure progress in one arena increasingly must be applied to all others.


A pilot project at a major defense manufacturer is giving operators visibility into system performance in real time.

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Richard Wendland is operational intelligence manager for the commissioning group at Burns & McDonnell. With nearly 30 years of information management experience, he specializes in management technology projects and providing technical and strategic guidance to clients. Richard manages the Burns & McDonnell partnership with OSIsoft and has overseen the successful execution of many client software and technology projects for the Department of Defense, federal agencies and commercial sectors. Richard helps clients move their organizations into more modern, data-driven operations using current technology, architectures, best practices and data and systems integration.