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Reimagining the Virtual Audit: How Remote Assessments Can Overcome Restrictions on In-Person Site Evaluations

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By Lloyd Kass  and Jason Steinbock

 

COVID-19 has dramatically altered the energy efficiency industry. As states and local governments have established lockdowns and other economic restrictions necessary to protect the public health, energy efficiency companies have endured staggering layoffs and other financial hardships. Most commercial energy efficiency programs paused in-person energy audits, the traditional means to identify energy savings opportunities. Even as these hardships subside and programs return to work, energy efficiency programs and service providers are adapting to varying degrees. On a limited basis, program teams at Willdan have been deploying a version of remote assessments, a digital alternative to the physical energy audit. The remote assessment allows energy efficiency implementers to identify energy saving opportunities from a distance. Willdan, along with its subsidiaries such as Lime Energy and The Weidt Group, has been able to accurately identify energy efficiency measures and execute project proposals (with small and medium business customers) without setting foot inside a commercial facility.


In addition to the remote assessment, we have also begun to use “virtual audit” tools as an alternative to the physical audit. Virtual audits provide a fully digital pathway to identifying energy saving activity. Both Willdan and other firms offer this software-focused approach, which uses a building’s historic energy use, including utility billing data, hours of operation, and other building and business typology information. Using this information, the virtual audit generates an energy model-based report proposing various bundles of measure offerings for customers. While virtual audits eliminate expensive and time-consuming physical audits, there are limits to what their algorithms can achieve.

 
Addressing the Limitations of Virtual Audits


Despite their advantages, virtual audits cannot supplant the physical audit. Without detailed onsite knowledge, virtual audits necessarily make assumptions about the actual energy consuming systems inside the building. The virtual audit represents a valuable first step for facility operators and decision-makers, but it may lack the specific details required to define precise energy savings potential. These constraints can be overcome by coupling the virtual audit with site observations. An onsite visit with appropriate social distancing and hygiene protocols – if permissible given current restrictions – is one way to gather those important site details. The “remote assessment” concept, where the customer provides the additional detailed information, is another appealing alternative.

 

Remote Assessments involves the Customer


Combining the virtual audit with the remote assessment is a compelling option that we are increasingly adopting. The remote assessment is completely digital. It requires no in-person interaction. However, unlike the virtual audit, it captures site-specific details by relying on customers to identify building features that a virtual audit might overlook. The customer’s role can take many forms – digital guide to a remote facility walkthrough, photographs of energy consuming systems, written responses to remote assessment questionnaire – but the customer is the key to filling in the gaps overlooked by the virtual audit. The customer completes a simple questionnaire, either online or over the phone, to address the as-built reality at their site. Potential discrepancies with the virtual audit, not just the specific lighting fixtures at a location but also unpredictable conditions such as poor ventilation, underperforming equipment, or uneven heat distribution, are added to the virtual audit. The remote assessment, a combination of high-tech software and low-tech questions, presents a whole-energy building portrait without a site visit


For small commercial customers, remote assessments are even simpler. The smaller scope of most small commercial efficiency projects allows them to be assessed without advanced modeling or benchmarking software. Especially for small business customers eligible for a direct install offering, the remote assessment will omit the modeling component entirely. The easiest way to complete this type of remote assessment is for the customer to guide an energy advisor in a building walkthrough over video chat. The video chat assessment allows the energy advisor to observe energy consuming systems and ask follow-up questions such as fixture height, lamp size, refrigerator fan rotation, access issues, operating hours, or any other details. For some customers, however, the video chat is not possible. For these customers, energy advisors can gather site information over the phone, through email, or even by text message. Guided by the small business’s owner or manager and using the communication method most comfortable to the customer, energy advisors can complete the remote assessment entirely by interview.


Another Advantage – Customer Buy-in


The advantages of the remote assessment make it an ideal pathway to energy efficiency from afar. Remote assessments can forecast energy efficiency opportunities without any in-person interaction. Another major benefit is customer buy-in. Unlike both virtual audits and physical audits, the remote assessment requires the customer to invest time to learn about his or her facility and to participate in the investment. This not only builds customers’ knowledge about energy consumption but expands their involvement in the energy efficiency project.


The remote assessment also creates a spectrum of auditing tools to guide customers of all types. Whether a customer is inclined toward independence or guided support, the remote assessment has options for both the do-it-yourself crowd and the building owner who needs each energy fixtures explained. And it is not just customers who benefit. Because customers are more invested, remote assessments also reduce project turn-around and therefore bring energy savings to the sponsoring utility more quickly. Customer participation also has the potential to reduce customer cost share and therefore increase participation rates, benefits enjoyed equally by customers, utilities, and energy service companies.

 
Limits to the remote assessment


There are, of course, limits to the remote assessment. The value of the remote assessment relies on the accuracy of the data provided by the customer. For larger customers, it can require cutting edge software not available to all implementers. For smaller customers, it can get confusing for customers with inconsistent fixture types or too many energy efficiency measures. The assessment process can also be longer as energy advisors wait for customers to identify unfamiliar technologies. These are not insurmountable obstacles. As the remote assessment is more widely implemented, practitioners will innovate new ways to improve the process. And while the remote assessment is an ideal tool to complete an energy evaluation without a site visit, it has enough benefits that it will remain practical even as physical audits resume throughout the country.

Lloyd Kass is the Senior Vice President of Utility Strategy at Lime Energy , a Willdan business line that designs and deploys innovative small commercial direct install programs. He leads Lime on policy matters, market development and client relations. Jason Steinbock, is a Director of Business Development at Willdan. He provides policy advocacy and program development to support the growth of Willdan’s new construction and large commercial energy efficiency programs.

This article is republished from the June 2020 issue of Strategies, AESP’s exclusive magazine for members. To receive Strategies, please consider joining AESP.

Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 30, 2020

While virtual audits became more of a priority in the socially distanced times, I wonder if the future is more of a mix of keeping virtual and in-person when possible, especially given the lower cost I'm assuming comes with an audit going virtual. Perhaps virtual audits can be completed as a pre-cursor to an in-person audit so those in-person trips are quicker? Or even the virtual audit determining whether an in-person visit is even necessary? 

Kristen Jaeger's picture
Kristen Jaeger on Nov 2, 2020

I also think the hybrid approach will be the way of the future for energy audits, even after the pandemic is over.  A virtual audit is a great first step in gathering the low hanging fruit, but ultimately, an in person visit will most likely be necessary.  I find it isn't always a simple task to engage the customer in learning about their facility.  This presents its own set of challenges, including the accuracy data being provided.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 2, 2020

Great points, Kristen. I imagine that even if the virtual first step eliminates a small percentage of in-person audits, the cost of doing that will pay off for those providing the audits given that the infrastructure to do virtual audits via video conferencing apps is now more viable and mainstream than ever. A year ago it may have been a taller order, but now the percentage of people who've never engaged in a Zoom or similar call has to have dropped dramatically. 

Kristen Jaeger's picture
Kristen Jaeger on Nov 10, 2020

I do agree that the number of people engaging on Zoom or other virtual platforms has increased due to the pandemic, but it was more out of necessity than choice.  I have engaged in quite a few calls where the participants were uncomfortable with the technology and/or the platform, and will welcome returning to face to face meetings when they are able to.

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