Does anyone really study their utility bills? And even if they do, how should all those figures be interpreted?

The folks at EnergyPrint Inc. understand those bills in a meaningful way. Interpreting the seemingly byzantine small print on energy and water bills at commercial buildings is a big part of the St. Paul-based firm's business model. The hoped-for end result is a utility bill that's reflective of efficient energy use, and one that's economical, too.

Recently, privately held EnergyPrint and the Minnesota chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (U.S. GBC), a group that promotes environmentally responsible design, construction and operation of buildings throughout the state, struck up a partnership called the Performance Metrics Strategic Initiative. They'll assess the building performance of more than 150 LEED-certified buildings by analyzing their energy and water use. (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an internationally recognized rating system that calls for green building design, construction, operations and maintenance.)

In short, the project will determine whether LEED buildings are as efficient as they're expected to be. The data will be shared with building owners and managers with suggestions for improvement, if needed. The program is also aimed at shaping state and local policies and legislation supporting sustainable building, plus energy and water efficiency.

The Star Tribune sat down with Mike Williams, chief operating officer of EnergyPrint, to discuss the U.S. GBC project, and other green topics.

Q What does EnergyPrint do?

A Energy Print is an online water and energy reporting tool. We provide business-centric answers to four key questions: How are my buildings doing? Are they getting better or worse? Where are the opportunities for improvement? Are my improvement projects actually working?

Q How did the project with U.S. Green Building Council come about?

A LEED certification is the Cadillac of green building protocols. But there has consistently been some question as to whether LEED buildings perform better or worse than non-LEED buildings in terms of energy and water usage. One of our board members ... challenged us to offer our services to a city or a constituent that could benefit from our analytical tools. We reached out to Seattle, San Francisco, New York City, and were having good conversations. Turns out, U.S. GBC had a parallel initiative.

They're a volunteer organization, gathering this data is extremely difficult, yet that's what we have staff to do. We can help facilitate the data collection as well as provide the dashboarding and the analytical tools to help answer the questions for the U.S. GBC.

Q Have you identified the 150 buildings?

A They're identified by U.S. GBC -- varying from standard office buildings like the Wells Fargo tower to the Lebanon Hills Visitor Center to Target Field, the TCF Stadium to Chipotle restaurants. We're now contacting the owner/operators of these buildings and asking their permission to participate in this study.

Q If they agree, then what do you ask them?

A We do all our analysis direct from utility bills. We need their permission to collect their energy and water bills. We ask for 24 months of historical data and then monthly data after that. It's an active analysis versus a static one.

Q Do you make recommendations on how a building can be more efficient?

A We're the third-party impartial data source. We point in the direction as to where they should to focus their time -- to the buildings that have energy problems. From there, we can isolate the issue -- is the problem in your [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] system or is it in your lighting? At that point the facilities personnel at the building would start looking deeper.

Q Generally, where are the problems?

A You start with your low-hanging fruit, typically behavioral modifications. That means your thermostat settings, your timers on lighting, adjusting the temperature of your building for when you're actually there. Believe it or not, some buildings run the same temperature all the time. Then you move up the chain and look at heating and cooling mechanicals, lighting, and then even higher up the chain -- shell improvements and windows.

Q Are most people amenable to being energy efficient but worry it's too expensive?

A That is a first impression many times. The way we look at it is energy is typically one of the top three operating expenses for a property. It is by far the fastest growing operating expense due to utility pricing. Typically people think, "My energy bill is uncontrollable, what can I do?" We say it's controllable.

Q How do you quantify it?

A A building could spend $250,000 or $500,000 a year on energy; even a 10 percent reduction, which sometimes is not difficult to get, has a very fast payback.

Q Does anyone do this simply because they think it's the right thing to do?

A Yes, but we're here to show it can make financial sense, too.

Q If the economy turns around, will people care about their utility expenses?

A We won't have to worry about that until everybody understands their utility bill and when energy costs are back down to $50 cents for a gallon for gas.

Q So basically, never?

A Right. As long as it's difficult to get access to your utility information we've got a killer business model.

Q What happens if utility companies make their bills easy to read?

A There are about 4,000 utility companies across the country. There is no one common language.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752