Step 4: Streamline Access to Utility Data
Streamlining access to utility-billing data can significantly improve your energy data management program. It reduces time spent collecting, inputting, and validating your utility data allowing for consistent and timely data review and analysis that can enable you to identify opportunities for energy and cost savings. Organizations that streamlined their process for accessing utility data reduced their time spent on data collection by approximately 10-33%.
To streamline access to your utility data:
- Assess your current process for collecting utility data
- Investigate options that can streamline access to your utility data
- Determine the feasibility of implementing those solutions
- Implement the selected solution
- Make improvements to further streamline your process over time.
With easier access to utility data, you can accelerate the benchmarking process and respond to usage anomalies more expeditiously. This can reduce the burden on your staff resources, allowing your organization to collect and store data from a larger subset of energy-using assets and identify and respond to more opportunities for improvement more quickly. Investigate your options for streamlining access to utility data in parallel with the development of your central energy database. See Step 3.
Tip: Benchmarking to Identify Opportunities and Verify Improvements
By streamlining access to utility data, you can accelerate the benchmarking process. Building energy benchmarking is the process of comparing the energy performance of a building relative to a baseline. This reference baseline can be an internal metric, such as energy performance from the previous year (i.e., longitudinal benchmarking), or external, such as the energy performance of a building compared to similar buildings (i.e., cross-sectional benchmarking).
These comparisons help to characterize energy performance and identify buildings performing outside a normal range. You can use this information to identify the root causes of higher energy consumption and design energy management strategies for underperforming buildings.
If you benchmark before and after making improvements, you can verify whether the improvements resulted in the expected cost savings. In this way, you can use benchmarking as a proactive approach toward making continuous improvements. To learn more, check out Building Energy Use Benchmarking on the State and Local Solution Center.
To learn more about leveraging data management tools that can support your organization's benchmarking efforts, See Step 5.
The three most common methods used by utilities to transfer utility data to their customers are as follows:
- Individual bills: A paper bill or an online bill on a utility website (most basic)
- Consolidated billing: Multiple bills grouped into one consolidated bill, which is also known as combined, aggregate, or conjunctive billing (primarily used with large customers); and
- Electronic or web-based billing: Utility-billing information converted into a standard electronic format and sent electronically to the customer.
The options for streamlining access to your utility data are contingent on the types of data transfer methods that your utilities deploy and the format of the data. Both of these factors can determine the degree to which you can automate the transfer of utility data into your central energy database.
Most utilities continue to provide billing data in the traditional format of a monthly paper billing statement; however, a growing number of utilities post bills online. Investor-owned electric utilities tend to provide the most extensive options to commercial customers for automating access to their utility data; however, even without more automated options, most utilities can provide their customers with electronic files in a spreadsheet format at no cost or for a nominal fee. It is important to assess your available options so you can request a more streamlined solution that best serves your circumstances when you engage your utility representatives.
|Utility Data Transfer Method||Data Format||Description|
|Individual Bills||Online bill||A utility bill generated by a utility monthly or quarterly and available to the customer in paper, web, or PDF format. Customer enters data manually into a database by copying and pasting individual data points into a central energy database. Even with recent data access advances across the utility industry, many vendors have not yet implemented streamlined access solutions, leaving organizations with no other option but to optimize the manual data entry process.|
|Consolidated Billing||Spreadsheet||The utility aggregates the customer's accounts and corresponding utility-bill data into a single spreadsheet file (in either XML or CSV format) The utility either sends the consolidated bill directly to the customer via email, or the customer downloads it from the utility's webpage on a monthly basis. Customer copies and pastes data from spreadsheet into a database. Consolidated billing is the most common format used by investor-owned and public power utilities for their commercial customers.|
|Electronic/Web-Based Billing||Electronic Data Interchange (EDI)||The utility converts billing information into a standard electronic format and then sends it electronically to the customer. EDI is the direct computer-to-computer exchange of business transactions between trading partners (e.g., customers, vendors, banks). Utilities with EDI capability send TXT files containing monthly utility billing data via a value-added network (VAN) on a weekly or daily basis as bills are generated. The customer downloads the files and uses customized software to convert them into any format (typically XML or CSV) that can be uploaded directly to the central energy database. All data contained in the bill are captured and transmitted. Bill payment can also be made using EDI.|
The three most widely used options for accessing utility data are:
- Manual data entry
- Consolidated billing
Each option supports various energy management and organizational goals based on the quality, granularity, and frequency of data produced. Figure 4-1 below summarizes how data access solutions can support a variety of energy management and organizational goals for mid- to large-size organizations that manage more than 100 meters. Manual data entry can also adequately support strategic energy management in organizations with fewer than 200 utility meters, as long as dedicated staff reviews data on a regular basis.
Your organization's strategy to obtain consistent and streamlined access to data for all energy-using assets depends upon the data access solution offered by local utilities and your organization's budget. Consider the best way to work within these constraints, including the following five steps to help you choose and implement the solution most appropriate for your organization.
To improve access to energy data, first assess how you are currently receiving utility billing data from each vendor and account, including all the utilities and commodities that serve the assets in your portfolio. This can allow you to plan for the tracking requirements associated with present and future goals.
Tool 4.1: Sample Worksheet to Audit Your Utility Data Collection Process
Use this worksheet to audit your current utility data collection process. It can help you to identify:
- Your vendors, commodities, and number of meters and/or submeters
- The methods and frequency for collecting utility data from each of your vendors and the individuals and departments involved in the process
- Databases and systems used for storing energy-cost and consumption data
- Your utility payment methods.
When you work with multiple utility companies, your options for accessing utility data will likely vary.
Before choosing a data access option, take into account your utility's future data-sharing practices that may impact your organization's ability to retrieve its energy billing data (e.g., smart meters that provide real-time consumption readings, utility implementation of Green Button, and so on). While your utilities may feature data access options on their websites, it is best to contact your utility account representatives to assess the most current options and available supporting software tools.
In general, if you have one major vendor, and they offer a solution such as consolidated billing or electronic data interchange, it may be feasible for you to implement this available solution.
If, on the other hand, you have many vendors and a variety of data access solutions, it might be more efficient to use a third-party service for reconciling your available options.
Tool 4.2: Sample Worksheet to Assess Your Utility Data Access Options
Use this worksheet to collect information from your utility companies and create a list of available data access options.Download Worksheet
Next, assess the feasibility of various solutions based on the data access methods employed by the utility and your organization. When assessing the feasibility of any solution, consider these factors:
- Meters and vendors: Number of meters, sub-meters, and utilities serving your portfolio
- Utility cooperation: If automated data solutions are not available, consider if your utility is willing to cooperate to develop a custom solution;
- Budget: Funds available to implement and maintain a solution
- Technical considerations: Technical changes required to ensure interoperability of data systems
- Leadership support: Buy-in and support for implementing and financing a data access solution
- Public-private partnerships: Opportunities available for leveraging private- and public-sector partners to help develop or support a selected data access solution.
Figure 4-3 below illustrates the efficacy of the three widely used data-access solutions by number of utility meters.
- EDI is more effective than consolidated billing and manual data entry if you have more than 100 meters and your utility has EDI capability; however, EDI is less economical for organizations with less than 100 meters due to the cost and effort associated with its implementation.
- Manual data entry is the most cost-effective approach to energy performance monitoring for organizations with fewer than 100 utility meters.
- Consolidated billing is more effective and cost-effective for organizations with more than 100 meters but is limiting for organizations with more than 10,000 meters, because this format requires a higher level of data manipulation and produces a delay in display of energy performance for a subset of meters in the bill.
Tool 4.3: Sample Worksheet to Evaluate the Feasibility of Utility Data Access Solutions
Use this worksheet to evaluate the feasibility of different utility data access solutions. It can help you compare each utility data access solution to factors that influence its feasibility and efficacy.Download Worksheet
Compare Efficacy and Feasibility of Data Access Solutions
Solutions for streamlining data access vary not only in methodology but also in the costs and benefits to an organization. To better understand the relative efficacy and feasibility of various data access solutions, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) analyzed the level of effort, costs, and benefits associated with implementation of the following three most widely used data access solutions by public-sector organizations:
- Manual data entry
- Consolidated billing
The analysis showed that EDI is the most effective solution currently available for the following reasons:
- Data receipt rates using EDI were within a 1–week range, compared to 1–4 weeks for consolidated billing and 1–3 months for manual entry;
- Staff time was 5–9 times less with EDI than with consolidated billing and 18–40 times less than manual data entry;
- Operational efficiency gains with EDI outweighed that of consolidated billing due to its flexibility in uploading files to a variety of software types and significantly outweighed manual data entry by eliminating redundant databases and data entry across functional areas; and
- Data quality was comparable with EDI and consolidated billing, but much lower with manual data entry due to errors introduced in the database.
|Manual Data Entry||Consolidated Billing||EDI|
|TIME AND RESOURCES REQUIRED|
|Level of Effort to Implement Solution||LOW
Limited staff training
Requires collaboration with utility to deliver preferred content and format
Requires RFP for third party, utility collaboration, and testing
|Cost Implications (Excluding Staff Time)||LOW
$1,000-$2,000 implementation cost & monthly fee at $.59-.99/bill
|IMPACT ON DATA ACCESS IMPROVEMENT|
|Reduction in Staff Time Intensity||LOW
An entity with 1,000 meters spends 35-160 hrs./month on data entry
An entity with 1,000 meters spends 10-35 hrs./month on data upload
An entity with 1,000 meters spends 2-4 hrs./month on data upload
|Bill Period Available for Review||SLOW
Past 4–12 weeks or more
Past 4–8 weeks
Past 4–5 weeks
|Comprehensiveness of Utility-Bill Data||LOW
Tracking data outside of cost and consumption adds significant time to the effort
Possible for all utility-bill line items to be included in consolidated bill
EDI data files contain all utility bill line items
Introduces errors in the database
Direct upload to database leaves few opportunities for manual data entry errors
Manual data entry errors are eliminated by automatic transfer of utility-bill data
Redundancy in databases and data entry for energy tracking and accounts payable functions
Easily shared between accounts payable and data tracking functions
Translated into any desired format, making data exchange automatic and compatible with multiple databases and functions
DOE interviewed 48 organizations for the analysis. Nine organizations relied on manual data entry for the bulk of their accounts, 16 used consolidated billing, 11 used EDI, 9 used third-party services, 2 used ENERGY STAR® Portfolio Manager web services, and 1 used Green Button Connect My Data. The efficacy of each solution was based on the following parameters:
- Reduction in staff time intensity: Reduction in full-time employee hours needed for entering data into a central energy database.
- Time from billing to review: The time from bill issuance to review by the energy manager (or similar staff). A time lag in data review compromises the ability to quickly identify usage anomalies that contributes to increased costs and energy waste.
- Ability to obtain comprehensive utility billing data sets: A comprehensive utility billing data set allows for identification of energy and cost savings related to demand charges, power factors, consumption, and rate schedules.
- Reduction of data entry errors: Utility-bill data errors introduced manually during transfer of data into the central energy database.
- Improvement in operational efficiency: Reducing the number of departments that process utility billing data in parallel for different purposes. Eliminating redundancy can free up time for analysis and lead to additional energy and cost savings.
ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager web services and Green Button Connect My Data are solutions that provide additional benefits to EDI, but insufficient data were available in this analysis to make those comparisons.
Green Button has the additional potential feature of displaying real-time energy consumption trends, and as a result, provides superior detection of equipment or operational malfunctions. For that reason, it may be the best application for optimizing building energy performance.
Third-party services utilize a combination of the data access solutions analyzed in this study due to the variability in data access options for a given organization.
All of these solutions, including those highlighted in this analysis, are discussed in greater detail in the next section, titled "Implement Your Selected Data Access Solution."
Take into account these general considerations when implementing a data access solution.
General Implementation Considerations
Obtain and Leverage Leadership Support to Improve Data Access
Implementation of an improved data-access solution requires time, resources, and collaboration with multiple stakeholders across an organization. Your program is more likely to succeed if your leadership openly supports the initiative and clearly communicates the value to both the organization and stakeholders.
For strategies on gaining leadership support, see Generate Buy-In.
Identify an Energy Data Champion
To ensure your program is a priority, delegate the development of a streamlined data access approach to energy management staff. Utilize staff who are experienced with utility billing data or are willing to learn about it. This can improve the ability to resolve issues related to implementation and maintenance of solutions. Staff with expertise in data collection can ensure that issues, once resolved, do not reoccur.
In addition, use dedicated staff to manage data. This can lead to familiarity with data trends and easier identification of usage anomalies and errors. It can also streamline your organizational processes. For example, there can be someone to turn to with questions or ideas for improvements.
Compile and Maintain a Current Central Energy Database
Ensure that the inventory of assets is up to date. If you know the number and type of accounts that service a portfolio, as well as the corresponding meters, you can effectively communicate to utilities which accounts to include as part of an automated data transfer solution. See Step 3
Also, develop and maintain a relationship with the appropriate contact at the utilities that service your organization's portfolio. If you have a contact to work with when implementing a data access solution, you can address and resolve issues related to data access more expeditiously.
Specific Implementation Considerations for Each Type of Data Access Solution
Streamlining Manual Data Entry
For tracking asset consumption information, manual entry of utility billing data into your central energy database is the baseline method. Even with recent advances in data access methods across the utility industry, many vendors have not yet implemented streamlined access to utility data. This leaves organizations with no other option but to optimize the manual data entry process. Despite the tedious nature of manual data entry, there are strategies that can optimize this approach and leverage its advantages. Consider the following proven practices to streamline the manual data entry process.
Dedicate Staff Time
Dedicate a knowledgeable staff person to devote time each week to data entry and data quality checks. This can help prevent a backlog of bills, which could make data entry unmanageable, and allow for consistency of data analysis. It can also ensure cost and consumption data remain as up to date as possible. In addition, the person's familiarity with the assets allows for immediate identification of usage anomalies.
Local Government Spotlight: Cleveland, Ohio
Leveraging Resources Across City Departments to Establish a Streamlined Data Access Solution
Cleveland, Ohio, is a model for how cities with public power utilities develop interdepartmental relationships to enhance utility data access. Through the collaboration with Cleveland Public Power and the Department of Finance, the Cleveland Office of Sustainability leveraged expertise to establish and maintain a comprehensive energy data management system that continuously tracks energy cost and consumption data for all of the city's energy-using assets.Learn More
Run Data Error Checks
Errors sometimes arise when transcribing data from a utility bill to a tracking tool. To minimize data entry errors, run a series of data checks after entering a batch of bills to catch errors prior to data analysis. A data audit tool (see Data Auditing Checklist) is useful for running data checks. Using this strategy, you can review bills concurrently prior to approval for payment and data entry into a tracking database. This strategy facilitates energy management best practices and fiscal responsibility regarding utility accounts and your organization's energy budget.
Use Utility Web Portals
Data retrieval from a utility's online bills or via electronic data services—such as Green Button Connect My Data or Green Button Download My Data—bypasses the need for receiving copies of bills from accounts payable departments. You can use historic billing data to develop baselines and analyze trends.
You can use interns to reduce the amount of paid staff time spent on manual data entry and data quality review; however, because interns are likely to be short-term employees, they won't be able to develop long-term relationships with utilities. Also, they may lack familiarity with the historic operations of a portfolio, making them unable to recognize atypical usage patterns and other data errors. Interns can help expand the breadth of an entity's data tracking program, but they should not be considered substitutes for dedicated data management staff.
Feasibility and Efficacy Considerations for Manual Data Entry
The upfront cost for utilizing paper or online bills to obtain utility-bill data is marginal, as no additional technology investments are necessary. With training, manual data entry can be performed by clerical staff or student interns, which is less costly than using the services of higher-level employees.
Manual collection of bills, data entry, and processing is time intensive and proportional to the number of tracked accounts and meters. The efficacy of this approach decreases sharply with portfolios of more than 200 utility meters. The level of effort may also increase as the number of meters and commodities tracked increases.
Data Receipt Rate
Data collection from paper bills introduces the longest time lag between billing and data entry into an energy database. Receiving billing data is contingent upon the process in place for sharing data across departments. Some departments have dedicated staff for daily or weekly manual data entry, which can decrease the amount of time between data receipt and review. Sometimes it is done in batches on a monthly or quarterly basis, which creates significant delays in data available for analysis of recent energy consumption trends.
Public-sector organizations typically report a delay of between 1 and 3 months before they have access to consumption and cost trends. In contrast, online billing not only improves access to billing data across the organization, but it also reduces the time lag associated with standard mail and eliminates the potential for lost bills.
Comprehensive Data Collection
Paper and online bills contain complete billing data. They include line items such as demand charges, rate schedules, late fees, and other data that can be used for energy management purposes; however, the significant time required for manual data entry often allows for collection of only the total cost and consumption data, but not data from the additional line items.
Data Entry Errors
Manual data entry introduces key punching errors, which lessens the quality and accuracy of the data. Correction of these errors requires additional staff time.
Typically, when paper or online bills are utilized as the primary source of utility billing data, duplicate databases are created for energy tracking and accounts payable functions. Decentralized processing of standard paper bills can also result in lost invoices, duplicate bills, and late fees.
Energy managers for organizations with small portfolios, requiring only a few hours data entry time per week, may be able to leverage the additional time to review the performance of the portfolio, scanning it for any energy consumption anomalies or billing errors. This can provide a clearer picture of the characteristics and behavior of each asset and utility account; however, it will not work if clerical staff who enter the data are not trained to identify anomalies.
Streamlining Consolidated Billing
Consolidated billing is the most common format used by investor-owned and public power utilities for their commercial customers. If you do not have the option of using electronic data transfer or a third-party service, explore consolidated billing as the next best available solution for streamlining access to your utility billing data.
Not all utilities have experience producing a consolidated bill for their customers; however, there are utilities that will work with the customer to develop custom consolidated billing solutions for streamlined access. Consider the following proven practices to streamline the consolidated billing process.
Develop a Custom Solution
Most utilities have the capability in their customer information systems to aggregate utility billing data from multiple accounts into one file, or they can often inexpensively enhance the functionality to do so. A utility's level of customer service and the number of accounts may determine whether it will be willing to offer customization. Utilities tend to be more willing to work with larger customers because they make up a larger share of their revenue stream.
When developing a custom solution with a utility, it is important to determine the content and format of the consolidated bill. Specify that the utility include all bill line items from the regular bill in the consolidated bill. This can significantly reduce the amount of time needed to finalize the process. Also, consider working closely with the utility to receive a consolidated bill in a format that you can directly upload to your database. This can eliminate the need to manipulate data columns prior to uploading data to a tracking tool.
In addition, determine the medium of exchange for the consolidated bill. Depending on the size of the consolidated bill, a utility can send a spreadsheet via email or use an alternative digital document exchange method, such as a value-added network (VAN), file transfer protocol (FTP), or a web interface.
Align Billing Periods
Meter readings are often performed throughout the month, which leads to staggered billing periods. Because a consolidated bill consists of multiple accounts grouped into one report, a subset of the billing periods in the consolidated bill will likely be older than others. This effectively delays access to the energy consumption data for those accounts. It is best to request that the utility align as many accounts as possible to narrow the time window represented by the accounts in aggregate.
Establish Account Review Process
Establish a protocol for adding and removing new and old accounts from the consolidated bill. This can ensure the data in your central energy database is up to date and accurate. To reduce the time spent on issues arising from the database not recognizing accounts, schedule regular meetings with the utility for maintaining communication on account modifications.
Feasibility and Efficacy Considerations for Consolidated Billing
Factors that play into the feasibility of implementing consolidated billing include:
- Staff time required to prepare the list of accounts to aggregate and the time to organize and verify assets against accounts
- Level of effort and time needed to implement consolidated billing, which depends on whether your utility already offers consolidated billing or whether you need to design a custom solution.
The entire process can take from several weeks to a year. On the plus side, no additional technology or contractor services are needed to implement this solution. Thus, the monetary cost can remain low; however, some utilities may charge a fee per account delivered via consolidated bill.
Consolidated billing expedites data tracking by creating a shortcut for data entry—it aggregates utility billing data for all meters into a single spreadsheet. This allows organizations with larger portfolios (300 or more) to track energy use consistently. Organizations that have transitioned to consolidated billing report that the time needed for data upload is greatly reduced compared to manual entry.
Data upload for 1,000 utility meters takes approximately 10-35 hours/month compared to 35-160 hours/month using manual data entry.  In one example, when Columbia, Missouri switched to consolidated billing, the time needed for data entry was reduced nearly five-fold.
You can maximize the time savings by directly uploading a consolidated bill into an energy data management tool. In addition, consolidated billing allows you to identify billing errors and resolve usage abnormalities more quickly.
Data Receipt Rate
Despite the numerous advantages of consolidated billing, the process may delay the availability of data for review. This happens when a consolidated bill contains accounts with start dates that span multiple weeks. Data from meters with earlier read dates will not be available for review until the utility processes meters with the most recent read dates and aggregates them into the consolidated bill. This can delay availability of some data by as much as 3-4 weeks, reflecting energy consumption from as far back as 8 weeks. To avoid this, request that the utility assign the same billing periods to all of its accounts.
Comprehensive Data Collection
The data fields that are included in consolidated billing can vary from one utility to another. Organizations may need to negotiate with utilities to include data fields that can be used to identify additional energy and cost-saving opportunities.
Data Entry Errors
If uploading to a tracking tool is available electronically, there are fewer opportunities for manual data entry errors to occur.
Consolidated bills are easily shared between the accounts payable and data tracking functions. Data provided in this format improves the efficiency of accounts payable through direct upload to accounts payable tracking systems.
Not all utilities offer a consolidated billing option to their commercial customers. Development of a custom solution requires collaboration with the utility. Multiple iterations of the consolidated bill file may be necessary before both parties approve the final version. Therefore, designing a custom consolidated billing solution may entail significant time and cost commitments, which should be considered ahead of time.
Local Government Spotlight: Knoxville, Tennessee
Collaboration With Municipal Utility to Streamline Access to Energy and Water Use Data
Knoxville, Tennessee, worked with its municipal utility to develop a monthly consolidated utility bill for all of the city's facilities. The consolidated bill enhanced the city's energy consumption tracking, provided the ability to verify savings from energy efficiency projects, and allowed for more efficient use of staff time. In the 10 city buildings that use the most energy, cumulative energy consumption dropped by 16% from 2007–2014. In one example, access to comprehensive monthly utility-bill data confirmed $144,000 a year in savings realized through an LED traffic signal retrofit.Learn More
Streamlining Electronic Data Interchange
Utilities with EDI capabilities are primarily investor-owned and geographically diverse. One-third of investor-owned utilities—operating in 44 states and the District of Columbia—offer EDI to its commercial customers.
Approximately one-third of utilities that offer EDI also require that customers use EDI-formatted files in conjunction with electronic payment.
Utilities with EDI capability send TXT files containing utility billing data via a VAN on a weekly or daily basis. A VAN is a service that acts as a virtual mailbox where the EDI invoice file (known as EDI 810), is deposited by a utility and retrieved by the customer. Other methods for retrieving EDI files include secure File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and Applicability Statement 2 (AS2) specifications.
The customer downloads the files and uses customized software to convert them into any format (typically XML or CSV) that can be uploaded directly to their database. Bill payment can also be made using EDI. Individual utilities have their own protocols for implementing EDI with their customers. This is a generalized summary of the process.
Determine Whether Your Utility Has EDI Capabilities
Not all utilities have the infrastructure in place to offer EDI as a data access solution. Utilities may use EDI for internal transactions with their suppliers, but not with their customers. Some utilities may not have EDI capabilities. If a utility has EDI capabilities, but does not use EDI for communicating with its customers, a customer may be able to negotiate with the utility to establish EDI between the two parties.
Local Government Spotlight: Virginia Beach, Virginia
Automating Utility Bill Invoicing to Improve Energy Management and City Operations
By automating bill processing and transitioning utility accounts from paper invoices using electronic data interchange, Virginia Beach, Virginia, eliminated nearly 1,000 paper bills every month, reducing staff time required for tracking energy usage and processing bills by 85%. The city also reduced cumulative electricity consumption by 15% in city buildings in 5 years and saved an estimated $1 million in utility costs from a variety of cost-saving efforts.Learn More
Identify and Match Meters
To appropriately match accounts transferred via EDI with their corresponding meters, review the existing inventory. Accounts previously aggregated into a consolidated bill need to be disaggregated to establish the EDI transfer protocol.
Choose a Preferred Method for File Translation
Some organizations develop, implement, and maintain an EDI using their own Information Technology (IT) capabilities; however, there are third-party contractors that offer cost-effective services for EDI implementation from inception to finalization. In addition, the contractors maintain the translation software needed for changes in the EDI code.
|Internal IT EDI Development||Third-Party EDI Services|
|Installing and running EDI software may be a good option if your organization has the resources to manage and support an internal EDI operation. Running an EDI operation with installed software requires an investment in software and the EDI and IT personnel to manage and support it.||Because running an EDI operation requires an investment in software and the EDI and IT personnel to manage and support it, outsourcing may be a better option. EDI service providers host and operate EDI software to handle the various aspects of EDI mapping, translation, and transfer. They also provide the services to manage the process. This includes day-to-day monitoring of routine activities, setting up new trading partners, and ongoing support. This allows entities to conduct business via EDI without the investment in the infrastructure needed to support it.|
Identify a Preferred Method and Frequency of File Transmission
To transfer EDI files, utilities use various data transfer methods such as:
In addition, it is important determine the frequency of EDI file download from the EDI hosting service. Utilities vary in the frequency of EDI file delivery to customers. Determine the delivery frequency (daily or weekly) that works best for both the utility and your business operations.
Identify Compatible File Formats
EDI translation software has the ability to convert raw EDI files to any specified electronic format. Determine which format is compatible with your organization's internal data tracking systems and develop the conversion software to convert the EDI file to your desired format.
Keep in mind that EDI eliminates paper invoices, and some utilities support EDI file transfer only with customers who pay using electronic funds transfer (EFT) with an accompanying EDI file (utilities sometimes allow an alternate EFT payment format); however, some accounts payable offices require hard copy documentation of invoices. If this is the case, work with the utility or a third-party contractor to obtain sufficient documentation to satisfy accounting requirements. Alternatively, consider accessing invoices electronically if made available by the utility.
In addition to having software that translates the EDI invoice file (known as EDI 810), the organization must also translate payments into a similar format (known as EDI 820). This necessitates working with your accounts payable department to determine whether it can remit payments via Automated Clearing House (ACH) CTX format (an ACH payment with embedded EDI 820 file). This is the equivalent of a cashier's coupon used for updating a customer's account within the billing system.
If your organization does not have these capabilities built into its accounts payable function, consider these solutions:
- Develop or purchase an EDI 820 translation module to convert an accounts payable payment file into a valid ACH file for use by the bank
- Contract with a third party to use EDI 820 for remitting payments on behalf of the organization.
Each of these solutions entail additional costs, so carefully consider these options as part of your feasibility assessment for EDI.
Resources: List of Utilities That Offer EDI and a Sample EDI File
For a list of utilities that offer EDI to commercial customers, including the required payment and file formats, see Utilities Offering Electronic Data Interchange to Commercial Customers.
To see a sample EDI file, see Sample EDI File.
Establish a Quality Control and/or Assurance Process
Test EDI invoice (810) and remittance (820 and ACH) transfer with both the utility and bank. In addition, test the EDI transfer protocol using a small batch of bills before launching the live application.
When your utility introduces changes to the code or reformats its billing data, a third-party service provider can repair and update the EDI translation software.
Feasibility and Efficacy Considerations
Implementing an EDI solution requires the purchase or internal development of software that can read and translate the EDI TXT file into your desired format. A software purchase makes the initial cost of EDI higher compared to other solutions.
Example EDI Implementation Costs
- Setup Costs: $500 = subscription setup fee ($100) + utility setup fees ($400/utility)
- Cost includes translation to one backend system, additional one-time cost of $500-$1,000 is necessary for translation to more than one program
- Ongoing Costs: Monthly subscription fee ($75) + monthly per invoice fee ($0.59-0.99/bill).
- Some utilities also charge per account delivered via EDI (e.g., Xcel charges $5 a month per account to deliver electronic data in Minnesota).
Example costs provided by Xebec Data Corp. in 2014.
Utilities also commonly change the format of the EDI file, which requires periodic adjustments to the translation software. There are a number of third-party service providers that offer EDI translation and management services. For more details, see section titled, "Utilize Third-Party Services".
Although significant staff time and coordination among various departments is needed to implement EDI, once a utility is delivering EDI files on a consistent basis, data entry becomes nearly automatic.
EDI eliminates manual entry of billing data, which decreases your staff time needed to transfer data from your utility to your central energy database. For example, a government entity with 1,000 meters might spend only 2-4 hours/month on data processing, which increases the time available for bill processing and analysis.
Data Receipt Rate
Utilities transmit monthly bills at the time the statement is generated, which reduces the time delay between statement generation and receipt to 1 business day. Customers typically process EDI bills on a weekly basis. The billing statements reflect energy consumption from the previous 1–5 weeks.
Comprehensive Data Collection
The EDI data includes all utility bill line items, allowing you to perform more comprehensive collection, tracking, and analysis of your utility consumption data.
Data Entry Errors
The ability to upload complete utility billing data automatically eliminates errors that arise from manual data entry.
EDI data can be translated into any desired format, making data exchange nearly automatic and compatible with multiple databases. You can share the same data file with data tracking and accounts payable departments, eliminating overlap in data tracking responsibilities. You can also format EDI for outgoing payments, which decreases the time needed to process and pay bills and also reduces the occurrence of late fees. Elimination of paper billing decreases the likelihood of lost invoices and duplicate bills.
Tool 4.4 Feasibility Assessment of EDI
This flow chart can assist you in determining whether electronic data interchange is a feasible utility-data access solution for your organization.Download Flow Chart
Additional Solutions for Streamlining Access to Utility Data
Utility customers are increasingly requesting more streamlined access to energy cost and consumption information and a number of utilities and service providers now offer solutions that streamline access to energy consumption data.
In addition, several states are actively working on regulations to improve customer access to energy use data, and commercial building energy benchmarking policies are proliferating in local governments and states across the country that require building owners to report building consumption data, spurring utilities to develop automated systems for sharing data with their customers.
Several national initiatives have also helped to address this need, including the Better Buildings® Energy Data Accelerator, ENERGY STAR, and the Green Button Alliance that partnered with utilities to develop solutions for sharing energy data with customers.
Resource: Better Buildings Energy Data Accelerator
Through the DOE's Better Buildings Energy Data Accelerator local governments joined forces with their local utilities to make it easier for building owners to get access to whole-building energy usage data for the purposes of benchmarking building energy performance. Partners convened local stakeholders to overcome key technical barriers to access energy data, upgrade energy data systems, and design and pilot systems in their areas. As a result of best practices developed by the Energy Data Accelerator, 18 utilities serving more than 2.6 million commercial customers nationwide committed to provide whole-building energy data access to building owners by 2017. To learn more about the best practices that enabled cities, utilities, and other stakeholders to overcome whole-building data access barriers, check out the Energy Data Access: Blueprint for Action Toolkit.
Finally, improvements in metering infrastructure are making energy consumption data more accessible. Upgrades to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), commonly referred to as smart meters, allow for near or real-time access to energy data. Smart meters benefit not only consumers but also utilities by enabling enhanced load management and demand response programs.
Tip: Advanced (Smart) Metering Infrastructure Deployment
In 2018, U.S. electric utilities installed approximately 86 million advanced (smart) metering infrastructure (AMI) across the country, but about 88% of the AMI installations were residential customer installations.
AMI includes meters that measure and record electricity usage at a minimum of hourly intervals and that provide the data to both the utility and the utility customer at least once a day. AMI installations range from basic hourly interval meters to real-time meters with built-in, two-way communication that is capable of recording and transmitting instantaneous data.
However, in instances where the utility charges a fee for interval data on a per-meter basis, it has curtailed the use of the smart meter data. Nevertheless, it is useful to have the capability for real-time monitoring of building performance data. With real-time data, you can monitor usage trends instantaneously, and you can adjust building operations and maintenance accordingly, which has the potential to lead to substantial energy and cost savings. For all these reasons, consider using smart meter data whenever possible to optimize your energy data management program.
Example: Utilizing Smart Meter Data to Monitor Water Consumption in Cary, North Carolina
Cary, North Carolina, converted 60,000 residential and commercial water meters to advanced metering infrastructure to provide interval water consumption data to its customers. The project is estimated to create a benefit of $27.5 million to the town's utility fund over the 17-year project life.
Utilize ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager Web Services
ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager web services (Portfolio Manager web services) is an application programming interface that allows utilities to export cost, consumption, and billing period data directly via software-to-software communication on a routine basis.
To utilize Portfolio Manager web services, you must first determine if the utilities that service your organization's portfolio have data exchange capabilities with Portfolio Manager.
Resource: List of Utilities that Offer Portfolio Manager Web Services
Use this fact sheet to find utilities in your region that offer energy data access solutions. The document provides a complete listing of all known utilities providing customers with streamlined access to energy benchmarking data, which is defined as either the provision of aggregate, whole-building data in spreadsheet format, and/or the delivery of data directly into customers' Portfolio Manager accounts via web services. Contact information and additional resources for each utility are also included where available.Learn More
Once your utility has configured its database to exchange data with Portfolio Manager, create a new or use an existing Portfolio Manager account to add the utility as a contact. Then, send a connection request to the utility. When the request is accepted, your utility will have access to your property and commodity meter data in Portfolio Manager. Typically, your utility will upload up to 12 months of energy consumption and cost data to your account each month.
Feasibility and Efficacy Considerations
Once you establish the link between your utility and your Portfolio Manager account, data uploads come directly from the utility on an automated basis. Utilities typically have protocols for connecting utility billing data with Portfolio Manager. This makes setup a relatively straightforward process. Some service providers also use web services to assist in data transfer from utilities to Portfolio Manager.
Portfolio Manager web services decreases the time and staff required to collect utility billing data from invoices and transfer to the data to Portfolio Manager and other energy data management tools.
Data Receipt Rate
Data receipt rate is the frequency with which utilities send data via web services. It can be monthly, quarterly, or annually, depending on the utility and data request.
Comprehensive Data Collection
Portfolio Manager data exchange is limited to electronic sharing of energy consumption and cost data. The smallest interval of data accepted is daily. Other tracking tools must be utilized in conjunction with Portfolio Manager when tracking more granular intervals and additional data points, such as demand and rate schedules.
Data Entry Errors
The ability to upload complete cost and consumption data automatically to Portfolio Manager eliminates errors that arise from manual entry.
The electronic transfer of cost and consumption data eliminates the need to manually enter utility billing data. Portfolio Manager data are easily downloaded in several formats, which allows for seamless integration with other tracking tools.
State Spotlight: California
Utilizing Portfolio Manager Web Services to Benchmark the State's Building Portfolio
In 2007, California passed Assembly Bill (AB) 1103 (in 2015 the California legislature repealed AB 1103 and replaced it with AB 802) that mandated California's investor-owned utility companies automatically upload energy-usage data for all nonresidential buildings into ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager via Portfolio Manager web services to help automate building benchmarking. California estimated that this process would reduce manual meter data entry into ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager by 80%. By tracking current and historical energy use, California reduced its cumulative energy use in state buildings by more than 10% and energy use intensity of state buildings by 25% from 2003-2013.Learn More
Utilize Green Button
Green Button is a North American initiative that supports utilities and their customers by providing customers with easy access to energy consumption data. Utilities and energy service providers that utilize Green Button can provide customer data in an XML format. It is based on a technical standard developed in collaboration with a public-private partnership with support from DOE and the Commerce Department National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Utility data are available at no cost in the Green Button format at intervals of 15 minutes, daily, or monthly, depending on the utility. You can access the data via two ways: Green Button Download My Data or Green Button Connect My Data.
Green Button Download My Data
Many utilities across the country have made Green Button Download My Data available to their customers. You can use it to download up to 13 months of your energy consumption data into an XML file. You can then either upload XML files to your database or authorize a third-party contractor to receive direct access to the data.
Green Button Connect My Data
You can use Green Button Connect My Datafor authorizing contractors to receive direct access to your organization's consumption and cost data. It allows customers to send energy use data to third-party applications. These applications are designed to analyze and present the data through graphs and tools that can help identify strategies for reducing energy consumption. See Figure 4-7 below.
For commercial customers, Green Button Connect My Data is the preferred solution, as it is designed to automatically transfer data from many accounts directly to the third-party application. Thus, it streamlines the process of data transfer significantly. Some utilities have implemented Green Button Connect My Data for use within their organizations, while others are in process of implementing this solution for their customers.
With access to real-time energy or near-real-time consumption trends, Green Button users can quickly identify and address usage spikes and pinpoint equipment or operational malfunctions to optimize building energy performance.
To learn more about Green Button, visit www.greenbuttondata.org.
Spotlight: District of Columbia
An Early Adopter of Green Button and Interval Data
By using a data-driven approach to utility services through the adoption of Green Button and interval data, building performance management, and ongoing optimization of energy supply contracts, the District of Columbia realized approximately $4 million in savings on its aggregate portfolio electricity costs from Fiscal Year 2012 to 2014. Using interval data as an essential tool, targeted buildings achieved a cumulative energy savings of 20% without extensive retrofits.Learn More
An approach that bypasses utility-data transfer limitations is the use of a third-party service provider to retrieve the data on your behalf. The provider collects utility-billing records and crafts a solution customized to your organization and utilities. Third-party service providers offer a range of specialized data management services, from a single service to an all-inclusive solution. See Table 4-3 below.
|Utility Data Transfer Method||Data Format||Description|
A service provider aggregates utility-bill data for accounts on your behalf, which can dramatically simplify utility-bill data tracking and analysis. Service providers use proprietary technology to automate the data transfer process for a variety of data formats, including paper bills, consolidated bills, EDI, Portfolio Manager web services,a and Green Button.b The third party delivers your utility-billing data in a customized format that is compatible with your central energy database or via the providers data platform.
|a) EPA. "Service Providers That Exchange Data with Portfolio Manager via Web Services." Find an ENERGY STAR SPP. Accessed August 2020.
b) Check the Green Button website to determine which service providers work with the Green Button data format.
The options available through your utilities can inform the types of services needed from a third-party provider. For example, if manual entry from paper or online bills is your only option for obtaining utility-billing data, consider working with a company that specializes in capturing data from utility bills. If EDI is a feasible solution, then consider contracting with an EDI specialist.
If you have a number of options available, look for a full-service energy management company experienced with:
- Green Button
- Consolidated billing
- Paper or online bills.
Many companies offer a data-management tool along with their data collection services (see Step 5: Leverage Data Management Tools to learn more). All third-party contracts should include provisions for training services and data backup and security. In addition, your organization should dedicate staff to manage and liaise directly with the contractor and the utility. This ensures effective communication, feedback, and execution among all parties.
In addition to the data access methods, you can contract with third parties that offer solutions for dramatically simplifying utility-bill data tracking and analysis. These companies aggregate consumption data for accounts using paper and online bills, consolidated bills, EDI, Portfolio Manager web services, and Green Button.
Some service providers use proprietary technology to automate the data transfer process. They can deliver your aggregated utility billing data in a customized format that is compatible with your database. The value of third parties is particularly evident for large organizations with geographically distributed asset portfolios and many corresponding accounts and vendors.
Third parties can perform the following data management services:
- Compiling and verifying your inventory of assets
- Transferring your utility bills data to your central energy database
- Analyzing your rate and/or tariff
- Analyzing and reporting energy data, supporting demand response participation, and measuring and verifying energy projects
- Training staff.
Database Compilation and Verification
To expedite compilation of your central energy database, third-party contractors utilize key inventory data from various data keepers. For example, Maryland worked with Bith Energy, which worked directly with over 100 accounts payable offices and 120 different utility vendors to create the Maryland State Energy Database. In addition, Fort Worth, Texas, contracted with Facility Dude to match meters to its corresponding assets using GIS technology.
State Spotlight: Rhode Island
Utilizing Partnerships to Establish an Energy Data Inventory
Rhode Island partnered with the National Grid, University of Rhode Island Outreach Center, and Narragansett Bay Commission to create the Rhode Island Public Energy Partnership (RIPEP). RIPEP established an energy-data inventory of Rhode Island's 18.3 million square feet of public facilities that led to 123 energy efficiency upgrades, which resulted in cumulative energy savings of more than 28% in implemented projects or 4,748 MMBTU.Learn More
Third parties can transfer utility-billing data from invoices into your central energy database. They can arrange automated billing in collaboration with your utilities (e.g., consolidated billing, EDI, and Portfolio Manager web services).
In addition, they can perform manual data entry for accounts in which automation is not feasible. In this case, you can forward your bills to the contractor, utilities can send copies of your bills directly to the contractor, or your organization can grant the contractor access to your utility's web portal. The contractor can then aggregate the information into a single file that is compatible with your preferred data management tool. Some companies use proprietary technology to read or download utility-bill data and then aggregate the data into a usable file format.
Some third-party contractors specialize in supporting EDI implementation. They use their proprietary software to convert EDI text files into a CSV or XML file that is compatible with Excel, a data management tool, and accounts payable software.
Additional services can include:
- Imaging your original bill that you no longer receive from your utility
- Creating summary reports
- Reporting billing errors—unrecognized charge codes or line items that do not equal the total due reported.
The error report also allows the contractor to identify when the utility makes changes to the EDI code. Once these errors are detected, the contractor automatically adjusts the software to accommodate the new code.
When utilities require customers use EDI-formatted files for paying bills, a contractor can also facilitate EDI 820 compatible bill payments or make EDI payments on behalf of your organization.
Rate and/or Tariff Analysis
Using the consumption and demand profile of each meter, utilities apply various rate schedules to your accounts. The application of each specific rate schedule to a particular account results in differing costs. Given the variety of rate schedules used by utilities and the fact they change frequently, it is common to find some rate schedules improperly applied. A rate or tariff analysis reviews current accounts to verify whether the existing rate schedule is appropriate for each meter. Organizations frequently do not have the in-house expertise or time to perform this analysis, which, when done, can result in monetary savings.
Data Analysis, Reporting, Demand Response, and Measurement and Verification
In addition to data collection services, third-party contractors can offer you complementary data management tools as well as their expertise in data review, analysis, and reporting.
Third-party services include running bill audits to alert you of anomalies and incomplete data, as well as pinpointing energy- and cost-saving opportunities. Contractors also offer dashboards that enable you to monitor your progress towards meeting energy reduction targets and assess the impact of your conservation measures. Contractors may also assist you in managing demand-response programs.
K-12 School Spotlight: Portland Public Schools, Oregon
Leveraging a Third-Party Service Provider to Streamline Utility Data Entry and Processing
Portland Public Schools eliminated manual data entry of utility bills by contracting with a third-party energy and utility management company that saved the school district 46 hours a month of internal personnel time, approximately $3,000 per year, and gave the school's energy specialist more time to address usage anomalies and improve the energy performance of school facilities.Learn More
Contractors typically offer training to educate your staff on the most effective utilization of the tools and expertise made available to them.
Tool 4.5 Feasibility Assessment of Third-Party Services
You can use this worksheet to help determine if your organization would benefit from engaging a third party to streamline and manage your utility data.Download Worksheet
After establishing a more streamlined method of accessing data from your utilities, you can work on:
- Expanding automated data access to a larger portion of your accounts
- Integrating the new system with other databases within your organization.
Your utility may also be in the process of implementing its own data access solution. So, it is important to meet with your utilities periodically to learn about potential improvements to your current data access methods. Also, keep your central energy database updated to match the utility's records.