Reinventing buildings for an energy-smart future

By Rahul Chopra

Rahul Chopra is the founder of Berkeley Lab’s Global Partnership Alliance.

High in the Berkeley Hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are getting ready to host Meeting of the Minds participants at FLEXLABTM, the world’s most advanced buildings efficiency test bed. FLEXLAB can evaluate the energy efficiency of major building systems as one integrated system, under real-world conditions and at a significant scale.

As Meeting of the Minds participants will see, at FLEXLAB, researchers can swap out windows, walls, HVAC systems, lighting, and other building systems to see how they all work together in different climate zones. One of the test beds rotates to reflect the different ways buildings can be oriented toward the sun. Another part of the lab is a working office, where peoples’ experiences and their interactions can be evaluated.

When it comes to creating dramatically more energy-efficient buildings and sustainable cities, FLEXLAB might be the most important building in the world. And it’s just one of the tools Berkeley Lab is using to reinvent buildings for an energy-smart future.

That’s important, because buildings use a whopping 70% of the electricity generated in the US, and are responsible for about 40% of total energy use and 40% of total greenhouse gas emissions. Making buildings much more energy-efficient is essential to combatting climate change, cutting pollution, and making cities more sustainable. So it’s no surprise a bipartisan commission called for cutting building energy use in half by 2030.

But despite hard work, innovation, and investment, incremental programs and piecemeal progress aren’t cutting building energy use far enough, fast enough. And most building owners and operators are stuck in a widget-by-widget mindset, swapping out one boiler or one box of light bulbs at a time. That’s better than nothing, but it’s not nearly enough.

We need a transformation: new tools, new actors and partners, and new financial models that articulate a clear economic value that applies to existing as well as new buildings. We need transformative solutions that usher in a new era for building energy use – and sustainable cities.

The Global Partnership Alliance

At Berkeley Lab, we wrote the book on building efficiency. If you’ve ever used fluorescent lights, energy-saving windows or building efficiency software, you have used technology influenced by the experts at Berkeley Lab. If a technology shrinks a building’s energy footprint, Berkeley Lab researchers have directly influenced it. We have a track record of innovation that sticks – and a history of setting industry standards.

Now we are building a wide-ranging public/private consortium to reinvent energy efficiency in buildings. It’s called the Global Partnership Alliance, and it is charting the future of energy-smart buildings.

The GPA’s goal is to unleash investment and unlock deep cuts in commercial building energy use. GPA is convening key stakeholders to standardize, commercialize and monetize energy efficiency in the commercial building sector. McKinsey estimates energy efficiency could save commercial buildings $290 billion every year, so there’s money to be saved – and money to be made. Market-based approaches are the best way to solve our energy efficiency shortcomings.

Guaranteed Performance

The GPA’s first strategic initiative is Guaranteed Performance. Let’s face it: it’s hard to attract investment if you can’t project a return. And project performance risk has been perhaps the biggest barrier to greater investment in energy efficiency. The reasons FLEXLAB has proven so useful is that it provides a way to test-drive energy-efficiency systems before breaking ground on a building project. But that kind of pre-testing is not available to most building owners and operators.

The Guaranteed Performance initiative is tackling that problem by developing validated, investment-grade risk-management methods to measure and guarantee building performance. Guaranteed Performance means energy efficiency projections you can take to the bank.

Standardizing the value of energy efficiency allows it to be factored into asset values and be the basis for new asset-based financial instruments. That paves the way for new capital flows, for energy-efficient new development and existing buildings alike. And new investment will spark innovation, spur the economy and grow the energy-efficiency sector.

Integrated Building Systems

With more money available to invest in commercial building energy efficiency, the next step is tying building systems together to work seamlessly with each other and with the design of a building to unleash truly deep cuts in energy use. Experiments at FLEXLAB and elsewhere show that for maximum efficiency, a whole-building approach is the way to go.

That’s where GPA’s second initiative, Integrated Systems, comes in. Integrated Systems is lowering the lift for commercial buildings, making deep energy savings possible for small and large buildings alike. We are developing technology packages and processes that can be easily deployed through existing market channels at reduced transaction costs. Streamlined assessment, design and implementation methods will make sophisticated whole-building approaches accessible and affordable across the commercial building sector. Integrated Systems could unleash energy savings of 50 percent or more.

Internet Building Operating System

Just as computers have operating systems that run and operate, integrated systems and the buildings they’re installed in need a standardized operating system to provide for data collection, sophisticated controls, and analytics for operations and interactions with the electric grid. That’s where the internet Building Operating System – iBOS – comes in.

What Android did for smart phones, the internet Building Operating System will do for the buildings industry. It will turn dumb buildings into smart buildings – and unleash innovations we probably aren’t even thinking about yet.

Most commercial buildings still operate as they did in the 1950s. Static controls operate siloed systems that don’t communicate or cooperate with each other. Building operators don’t have access to real-time analytics, and so can’t fix problems promptly. It’s analogous to the landline era for telephones.

IBOS will change all that. It is a best-of-breed software platform for running commercial buildings, allowing for real-time energy use monitoring and trouble-shooting, enabling communication and coordination among buildings systems and the grid. IBOS will bring building operations into the 21st century, reducing costs and allowing for massive whole-building energy savings. And there will likely be side benefits, too – from greater security to greater comfort for the people working inside.

The Future of Commerical Buildings

Big ideas don’t go far if they’re trapped in an ivory tower. Berkeley Lab, has a long history of working with businesses and other stakeholders to bridge the gaps between theory and practice, and helping good ideas make the leap from lab to marketplace. We are dedicated to practical solutions. That’s why facilities like FLEXLAB are so important: businesses work with our researchers at our facilities to develop energy-efficiency solutions and products that work well in the real world, where it counts.

So we are convening the Global Partnership Alliance to bring great ideas to fruition. The GPA is made up of major stakeholders – building owners, financial investors, equipment manufacturers, operators, utilities, regulators, architects, and engineers – working together to break barriers and accelerate innovations in energy technology.

With experts from the worlds of science and business working together, the Global Partnership Alliance will develop, standardize and implement these three key initiatives – iBOS, Integrated Systems, and Guaranteed Performance. We expect GPA to become a recognized force in the building market in the years ahead. And we expect dramatically more energy-efficient commercial buildings – and much more sustainable cities – will follow.

It’s an exciting project, and we’re just getting started. We invite you to come see us at Meeting of the Minds.


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1 Comment

  1. Jay Baldwin

    domes can air condition themselves without any electricity or swamp coolers. I have built several 30- footers that do well. Domes are also about 300% better thermally than rectangular buildings, too. Yes I have worked with Bucky Fuller. See my Wiley book, “Buckyworks” JB


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