Hello Smart Efficient Buildings, Goodbye Coal

By John Addison

John Addison is the author of two books - Save Gas, Save the Planet that details the future of transportation and Revenue Rocket about technology partner strategy. CNET, Clean Fleet Report, and Meeting of the Minds have published over 300 of his articles. Prior to being a writer and speaker, he was in partner and sales management for technology companies such as Sun Microsystems. Follow John on Twitter @soaringcities.

From LED lighting to zero-net energy (ZNE) buildings, our energy efficiency progress results in the U.S. at a 12-year low in using coal power. With the help of renewable energy and cheap natural gas, it is forecast that by 2020, coal use in the United States will be the lowest since 1945 and continue to drop as aging coal plants are shut down.

United States buildings use 76 percent of our electricity, thereby having our biggest impact on using coal, natural gas, wind and solar. Smart efficient buildings are the key to clean air and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

At Meeting of the Minds 2015, energy efficiency and smart city technology was discussed and success stories profiled.

Dave Pogue, Global Director Corporate Responsibility for CBRE stated that 40 percent of our new building square footage is in large buildings that are efficient, with LEED and/or Energy Star certifications. CBRE is the world’s largest manager of commercial buildings with five billion square feet under management in 60 countries (disclosure: I own their stock). The property that they manage is increasingly well insulated, using efficient windows, natural daylight, efficient heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), efficient LED lighting, sensors and uses energy management systems.

Recently, CBRE paid $1.5 billion to acquire Global Worksplace Solutions from Johnson Controls so that CBRE can now better manage energy for its clients.

Pogue pointed out that while we’ve made great progress with large buildings, not much has been done with buildings of 250,000 and less square feet. These comprise most of America’s five million office buildings. To make progress with small to midsized buildings, we need ROI in less than six years for buildings to replace their lighting and old inefficient HVAC. Innovative financing and PACE programs are needed to minimize capex and owner-tenant conflicts over who invests and who benefits.

Where do we start? What are our goals?

As a nation, Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute in their bestselling Reinventing Fire recommend that we have the goal of making 70 percent of larger U.S. buildings use up to 70 percent less energy by 2050.

For many new buildings, the first goal is to be Energy Star or LEED certified. Beyond these valuable certifications, a new corporate headquarters might have a specific goal of reducing its electricity bill by one million dollars annually. A data center might aspire to 99.999 percent uptime while cutting energy use by 40 percent. A hotel might aspire to reduce electricity use by 25 percent while increasing occupancy by 5 percent with an improved guest experience. Every building represents different needs, thereby justifying different goals.

Building owners need to start with baseline information. A small company might have one utility bill; a large organization might have thousands. Many organizations do not know their total energy cost, nor energy used by location, much less by circuit. An energy database is needed including energy use by circuit, by use, by occupant, by time of day, rates, and more. Energy management includes big data and analytics.

Once baseline information is established plans can be made for energy efficient retrofits and building replacements. With energy management is the added opportunity to reduce energy when people are not present, cycle down when people are absent or time-of-use rates are at peak. With improving controls, sensors, and the internet of things (IoT), our most sophisticated buildings are smart and efficient as they make realtime responses to occupant needs, changing weather and variable daylight.

Innovation For Next-Gen Commercial Buildings

By market capitalization, Wells Fargo is the most valuable bank in the United States. Wells Fargo has financed billions in clean energy and building efficiency according to Ashley Grosh, VP and Environmental Affairs Business Initiatives Manager, Wells Fargo. In addition to traditional financing, Wells Fargo launched the Innovation Incubator (IN2) program to seed cleantech innovation. The program is co-administrated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Innovators may include technology for energy efficiency, lighting solutions, net zero-energy, water efficiency, indoor environmental quality enhancement, waste reduction, materials efficiency, operations and maintenance optimization, and datacenter facilities management.

Whisker Labs is one start-up funded by IN2. Whisker Labs has created inexpensive adhesive applied wireless sensor so that energy data at the circuit level can be acquired, monitored and managed without requiring an expensive rewire of a building. They are piloting EV charging with BMW and PGE.

Zero Net Energy Buildings

Hundreds of buildings go beyond being smart and efficient. Zero-net energy (ZNE) buildings are so efficient that they can meet all their needs with onsite renewable energy. For example, at the foot of the Colorado Rockies, NREL headquarters building is so energy-efficient that no central HVAC is required. With 1-foot thick walls of concrete, dense foam insulation, and aggregate panels, the building is warm in the Rocky Mountain winter and cool in the summer. The researchers make maximum use of natural daylight. With a network of LED lights and sensors , the system turns off lights when no one is present and turns off all lights at night. Not only do over one thousand work in this ZNE building, electric cars are charged with solar power.

We are starting to move beyond individual ZNE buildings. We are moving towards ZNE campuses and communities.

Two thousand people live in the zero net energy (ZNE) community of West Village. Near the University of California, Davis, West Village is a cluster of new apartment buildings, typically three story, surrounded by parks and open space that will be developed in the future. Most live in one to four bedroom apartments.

Homes are super efficient and typically use solar power. Energy efficiency is achieved with tight construction, triple pane windows, great insulation everywhere, Energy Star appliances and LED lighting. These homes are designed and ventilated to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Heat pump and space cooling is used instead of energy-hungry conventional HVAC. With excellent energy efficiency, solar power can meet most energy needs.

In practice, though, West Village is almost net zero. People have plugged in entertainment systems, digital games, and other plug loads that are larger than projected. Nevertheless, West Village is a super efficient example of our ability to meet all of our future needs with renewable energy.

Starting in 2020, new residential construction in California must be ZNE, states the Zero Net Energy Action Plan of the CPUC. Starting in 2030, new commercial construction in California should also be ZNE. California, by law, will get 33 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020 and 50 percent by 2030. Thanks to the growth of ZNE communities, energy efficiency, renewables, energy storage, and demand response, California could meet 80 percent of its energy needs with renewables by 2050.

The United States is inspiring nations like China and India with our efficient building technology, expertise, data, smart energy management, and internet of things (IoT). Efficient buildings will save trillions in energy cost and billions in clean air, clean water, and inviting places to live and work.

All the progress in smart efficient buildings today will lead to a bright future in the upcoming decades where more buildings will either be zero net energy or smart, quite energy efficient, and inviting places to live and work.

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