– Deb Noller and Ken Sinclair
Deb Noller, CEO, Switch Automation, Inc.
Noller has managed the growth of Switch Automation from its inception
in 2005 to present. Under Deb’s leadership, Switch has grown to provide
energy management for commercial and residential property with a
combined value of more than $3 billion in Australia, Asia and New
Zealand. In 2013, the company expanded into the US market and currently
has offices in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. She holds a
Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in Computer Science and Accounting, from
the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.
How does a really big property owner get started
with handling building data in the Cloud?
Sinclair: What does Switch Automation do?
Noller: We have developed a cloud-based platform
for building owners to acquire operations data, analyse that data, act
on it and then automate. So our customers use the platform for a
broad range of uses from building automation to sustainability
reporting and tracking energy efficiency projects.
Sinclair: What markets are you in?
Noller: We are targeting three key markets –
firstly large portfolio owners, secondly multi-family residential and
thirdly what I see as a large underserved market – the buildings that
have no building management system – so all of the industrial, small
commercial, retail and individual tenants.
Sinclair: How does a really big property owner get started
with handling building data in the Cloud – the task seems huge and
would take a large team and a lot of money and a lot of time?
Great question, I am about to do a talk on this because if you look at
what I outlined above, it seems like an enormous task. And many
companies don’t know any other way than to create a budget, put a
project team together and go out to market with a 2-3 year project.
Even the request for qualifications and request for proposals can take
months to get through an organization; this is long before you select a
software integrator, comes on board and becomes effective. In fact
there are a number of platforms, including ours, where you can just get
started with a bit of utility or spreadsheet data, for example, and
some historical data. Through this process, you can get some early
successes, engage key people in your operations team, learn a lot,
achieve some savings and grow the platform from there.
Our experience is that you can be up and running in less than two
months in most cases, and begin the process of cost reduction and
gaining insight into the patterns of energy and water use. Then if you
want to integrate existing submeters and BAS systems, for example, you
will likely have to spend more time to make sure they’re all running
and posting correct data, BUT in the meantime, you’ll have something to
report to the facilities team and the C-suite, and that’s really
important for gathering support for further action.
Sinclair: What is happening in Australia and is the market place similar?
Noller: We have had mandatory disclosure of
energy use in Australia for a number of years now. So this means
large building owners have had to report energy ratings on buildings
offered for sale or lease. Initially there was resistance. After
that, both state and federal governments adopted policies which said
that they would only lease buildings with a minimum energy-efficiency
rating. Most building owners then upgraded their buildings to
attract government tenants, and then a lot of our larger corporations
started to demand better-rated buildings for themselves. So first it
was regulatory and policy-driven; then it became market driven. We now
have a very well educated group of property professionals who are
striving to cut energy use and root out other inefficiencies, because
the savings go straight to the bottom line and the tenants are
recognizing the benefits of being in efficient spaces. So we in
Australia have effectively created a big industry out of energy
efficiency, as well with lots of people benefiting from it.
Sinclair: What are Australian companies doing about energy efficiency?
Noller: The large property owners are very
engaged in this for the reasons outlined above. So once building owners
understand their overall energy consumption, they often need to
implement some submetering to get more granularity and visibility into
patterns of energy use. One of the problems we have seen in Australia
is large amounts of submetering implemented, but with no or poor
visibility into the data. This has led to large amounts of poorly
installed sub-meters and has given sub-metering a bad reputation. We
often find up to 40% of submeters not connected or not calibrated. As a
result, the person who originally signed off on that project has a
taste of disappointment because the project never delivered what was
promised. I suspect that the situation is no different in the U.S. in
this respect, where large amounts of money have been spent in
submetering buildings with no outcome and a large amount of scepticism
The next step for any organization is to use the energy data systems
for live tracking of government efficiency ratings so they do not miss
their stated energy rating goal, using lots of audits and energy
Sinclair: You recently won a project in Seattle. Can you tell us about that?
Noller: The US Federal Government has a target
for all commercial buildings to use 50% less energy by 2030. The
Seattle 2030 District has been set up to help building owners get to
that target. They have the belief that by benchmarking and
sharing data then the objectives will be tracked and achieved.
Several 2030 Districts are also organizing around the US, including in
Los Angeles, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The trick has been to help
building owners get started with tracking and reporting energy use
data. In Seattle, we are working with four major owners already, a
total of 15 large buildings, with about 1.5-million square feet of
space. We are hoping that the City of Seattle (which has a disclosure
ordinance) and the 2030 District will now start to endorse this “ready,
fire, aim” approach, where we just get data flowing at the macro
building level and then start to drill down to specific end uses of
energy that are driving overall consumption. It turns out that our most
enthusiastic backers are the sustainability directors of these
organizations, who see the potential for gathering far more than just
energy use data.
The big opportunity of course, is that we are developing a model for
Sustainable Cities – the ‘Holy Grail’ that all governments and a lot of
large companies are trying to build – a model that can be
replicated all around the world. We are also working with a network of
organizations in Los Angeles to see if we can replicate that model. It
involves a collaborative effort between private and public
organizations but the cities that can achieve this integration of
private and public sectors will lead the way.
Sinclair: What are the things holding the industry back?
Noller: Two big things – firstly how hard it is
to get going and to find a platform that is robust enough for all the
demands that you will place on it. If it were easy, then it would be
happening already, but it’s not – it’s really hard. There are lots of
silos in every organization and sharing data across department lines
and functional lines has never been part of corporate culture. As
a result, companies are holding data in spreadsheets, utility bills,
waste-collection invoices, and there are hundreds of buildings with
unique collections of systems and devices. The issue of data
integration and normalization, so that we can compare apples with
apples, is huge.
Secondly there is the issue of education – These new platforms require
an unusual blend of skills – electrical, mechanical, IT, networking,
energy knowledge, controls knowledge, and so on, and there is simply no
underlying education program that covers the entire skill set required
to develop the smart building industry.
Sinclair: What are the really big opportunities – for Switch? For the industry?
Noller: For Switch, there is a huge opportunity
to become one of the largest global growth platforms in the next big
wave of building automation. Take SAP – one of the leading global
platforms for financial data, created at a time when no one had a clear
idea about what was driving revenue and profit in a business. In much
the same way, Switch is responding to a pressing need for integration
of energy, operations and sustainability information. We are very
focused on operations data. Of course, just like SAP, we need
lots of businesses to adopt Switch both as a customer and as a means of
generating revenue, to allow us to continue to grow and develop the
As for the emerging Smart Building industry – in my view this is about
like 1993 in the Internet. We know it’s coming: the environment is
right, the appetite is there, the technologies are there, so it’s
emerging. Everyone thinks there will be one clear winner
(remember Netscape, My Space, even Yahoo?), but in my view it will be
just like the Internet: there will be hundreds, even thousands of
opportunities and lots of companies will develop pieces of the total
pie. That’s why we’re so excited to be engaged in this undertaking
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