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[ Buildings and Efficiency ]

Building Control Systems

  • [ GWh of Electricity Saved: ]

  • [ Jobs Impact: ]

    • Low
    • Medium
    • High
  • [ Budget Impact: ]

    • Low
    • Medium
    • High
  • [ Conventional Pollutants Reduced: ]

    11,375 tons
    9,389 tons
    .15 tons
    1,743 tons
  • [ Megatons of GHG Reduced:]



Commercial buildings, like shopping malls and office parks, are surprisingly complex systems to operate. Interactions within these buildings between lighting, climate control, ventilation, weather, use, productivity, and hundreds of other factors can mean the difference between profit or loss, efficient energy use or enormous waste. Keeping track of the variables and understanding the relationships between them would optimize building performance; however this requires both data and skill. Technologies to manage these factors are available1 but are only found in roughly 10% of commercial buildings.2 With the potential to save 19%3 of the more than 5 million GWh of energy used by commercial buildings annually,4 optimized building systems could have a large impact on U.S. emissions. Implementing better building systems would mitigate 200 megatons of CO2.5 This is the equivalent of eliminating almost all the energy used by New York state.6


“Building control system” can mean any of a wide variety of technologies that manage operations inside a commercial building. These systems, from climate control to fire alarms, can be highly automated and integrated or manual and separate.7 Many buildings have some form of an energy management system to help monitor or reduce energy usage, such as occupancy sensors for rooms or thermostats,8 but fully integrated, intelligent systems are rare.

Sophisticated building controls were a mere $10 million market in 2001, while more basic energy management control systems were only in 10% of commercial buildings.9 These systems are running up against many of the same barriers that other building efficiency improvements face: the principal-agent problem,10 building owners’ reluctance to commit to long payback periods,11 and a lack of trustworthy information.12 These systems also face some unique challenges, such as the higher need for user expertise and interaction,13 and a lack of interoperability between existing systems.14 This leaves buildings on a legacy system, even if better control software could help them gain more efficiency and save operating expenses. User education also plays a big role; the end user – building managers or engineers – may not realize the full potential of energy savings if the system is too complicated for them to understand or adjust.15


The federal government should enact policies would encourage data standardization and holistic building energy management.

Authorize Tax Incentives for Efficient Building Operation

Congress should create an option for building operators to receive tax incentives based on documented energy reduction16 in lieu of tax incentives based on capital expenditure. This approach would encourage behavioral change and education on optimizing existing systems as well as provide additional encouragement for compliance with an expanded building energy benchmarking program. The current commercial building energy efficiency investment tax deduction, 179D,17 places the incentive on making capital investments in energy efficiency, rather than rewarding actual energy efficiencies realized.

Create Interoperability Standards for Building Systems

The Department of Energy should develop an interoperability standard for building control systems and mandate that all systems in federal facilities be converted to compliant systems on an aggressive schedule. As a large user of building control systems, government adoption would require the building systems market to agree on standards and offer compatible systems. These compatible systems would then be available for non-governmental building owners, providing them choice and data portability that enable more frequent improvement and upgrade. This would also open up a space for competition and innovation in optimizing building control use and the building control market, ultimately lowering the payback period and increasing adoption.

Strengthen and Expand Building Energy Benchmarking

 Detailed in the Commercial Building Materials component, building energy benchmarking would provide market transparency and help identify areas for efficiency improvement.

  1. United States, Department of Energy, “Advanced Sensors and Controls for Building Applications: Market Assessment and Potential R&D Pathways,” Report, April 2005, p. 2.3. Accessed April 17, 2013. Available at:
  2. Ibid, p. 2.2.
  3. Combining the high estimates for market achievable energy savings. See Ibid, p. 2.14.
  4. Most recent data, for 2010, converted to GWh. See United States, Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “2011 Buildings Energy Data Book,” Report, March, 2012, Table 3.1.1. Accessed April 17, 2013. Available at:
  5. Calculation based on the estimates for market achievable energy savings combined with the carbon emissions attributed to commercial buildings. See “Advanced Sensors and Controls for Building Applications: Market Assessment and Potential R&D Pathways,” p. 2.14; See also “2011 Buildings Energy Data Book,” table 3.4.1.
  6. United States, Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “State Energy Data System, 2010,” June 29, 2012, Table C1. Accessed April 17, 2013. Available at:
  7. “Advanced Sensors and Controls for Building Applications: Market Assessment and Potential R&D Pathways,” p. 2.4.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid, p. 2.7.
  10. Lowell Ungar, Rodney Sobin, Neal Humphrey, Tom Simchak, Nancy Gonzalez, and Francesca Wahl, “Guiding the Invisible Hand: Policies to Address Market Barriers to Energy Efficiency,” Report, Alliance to Save Energy, 2012, p.3. Accessed April 17, 2013. Available at:
  11. United States, Environmental Protection Agency, ENERGY STAR Buildings, “Introduction to Energy Performance Contracting,” Report, October, 2007, p. 10. Accessed April 17, 2013. Available at:
  12. Ibid, p. 5.
  13. “Advanced Sensors and Controls for Building Applications: Market Assessment and Potential R&D Pathways,” p. 3.2.
  14. Lack of interoperability means that many buildings are locked into one building system provider unless they would like to make the costly investment to uninstall older hardware and put in newer models. Ibid, p. 2.11.
  15. Ibid, p. 2.5.
  16. The Alliance to Save Energy included this idea in its Energy Efficiency and Economic Recovery Initiative. See “Energy Efficiency and Economic Recovery Initiative,” Position Statement. The Alliance to Save Energy, Accessed April 17, 2013. Available at:
  17. United States, Internal Revenue Service, “Notice 2006-52: Deduction for Energy Efficient Commercial Buildings,” Bulletin, June 26, 2006. Accessed April 17, 2013. Available at: