The number may be comically ambitious, but the challenge effectively frames the stakes: Develop a wireless electric submeter capable of tracking building energy usage, and design it to cost just $100. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently issued that formal challenge, hoping to blaze a path to finding a more economical way of measuring non-aggregated energy consumption in buildings.

The Low Cost Wireless Meter Challenge recognizes that a cheaper, easier way of measuring decentralized electrical usage in buildings is going to be essential for the practice to flourish.

Discussing the challenge at the recent Advanced Energy Conference in New York, Elena Alschuler, a specialist in building energy performance at DOE, said submeters are present in no more than 20% of commercial buildings. The price tag on such meters — reaching up to $1,000 or more — is a major barrier to their proliferation, she noted.

The DOE’s Better Buildings Alliance Technology Solutions Team wants an inexpensive wireless submeter capable of electrical energy management at various locations in a building and wirelessly communicating the information to a remote data collection point within the building.

“The primary goal is to catalyze the development of low-cost panel-level metering solutions,” according to the “challenge” announcement. “Selected devices may, in some cases, also be applicable to whole-building application, but that is outside the scope of this challenge.”

Wireless technology could indeed be the ticket to more widespread adoption of building submetering, partly by enabling different methods of capturing usage information, says Dan Harris, senior project manager with New Buildings Institute, Vancouver, Wash. While a separate metering device is envisioned in the DOE challenge, Harris says a technology on the horizon is meters inside the energy-producing element itself.

“An interesting trend is embedded power meters and aggregation of the measured data through wireless meters and use of robust, ad-hoc wireless networks to collect the data,” he says. “What may happen is that in existing buildings not set up to handle submetering, power meters could be in something like the lighting ballast, and information on lighting usage could be captured directly. In this approach, you’ve submetered the plug load without installing actual meters.”

Whatever route the DOE wireless challenge takes, Harris says it looks like an initiative to get some economies of scale that could translate to more efficient metering.

“It looks like DOE wants to try and bring down costs on this, establish some commonality, and move the market in this area through the establishment of standards,” he says.