Navigating the New Landscape of Energy Efficiency, Renewables and Microgrids

solar energy

The building automation and controls industry sits at the nexus of a building’s solar arrays and its microgrid, as well as at the seat of its transactive energy potential with neighboring microgrids. Automation and control frameworks built upon open architectures have emerged as clear winners among building owners because they allow data to be pulled in from any energy consuming or energy producing source for operational performance analysis. Better and better operational analytics have been driven by demand for energy efficiency and occupant comfort.
Interoperability with the Smart Grid is another frontier for building control software and the industry’s ability to embrace the open protocols that will allow transactive energy. Meanwhile, solar power is getting cheaper and cheaper, due to manufacturing innovations and intense price competition among solar service rivals. So how should building owners, systems integrators and facilities managers decide their next moves as all these trends converge?

COMFORT_compass
Energy Efficiency & Occupant Comfort
At a CIBSE/ASHRAE Gathering of the Building Services Industry held 12 years ago, a presentation on Environmental Quality and the Productive Workplace urged the automation and controls industry to move its focus to productivity.

Embodied, operational energy and the opportunity for productivity gains in an office. (A graphic attributed to Amory Lovins/Rocky Mountain Institute, circa 2000.)

Embodied, operational energy and the opportunity for productivity gains in an office. (A graphic attributed to Amory Lovins/Rocky Mountain Institute, circa 2000.)

Finally, in today’s era of pervasive smartphones, cloud computing, social media and big data methods, we have the technology to do something about it. As Lindsay Baker, President of Building Robotics, says in her August article Measuring Happiness, “We all know that where we work matters.” It has taken innovations like her company’s Comfy app to empower occupants to adjust environments to their personal comfort.

Some basic changes to the steps and roles of the design/construction/Operations & Maintenance (O&M) cycle are needed to make the most of occupant feedback data that is collected by apps like Comfy, as well as by other Buildings Internet of Things (B-IoT) apps that tap energy and operational data streaming from submeters, sensors and equipment.“ A single, integrated engineering team should collaborate on all software programming and optimization tasks – controls, analytics, and workflow management” recommends Altura Associates Principal, Greg Shank in another article in the August automatedbuildings.com collection.

When software aspects are considered early and repeatedly throughout the design/construction cycle by a multi-disciplinary project team, optimal operating sequences and relationships can be built into the “smarts” of a building, and performance requirements can be made software-enforceable. Project teams should recruit a controls expert onto the team to help in software decision-making. This could be the O&M contractor, a systems integrator, a building commissioning agent — whoever can help get the building under data-driven control as the building transitions through all construction phases and on to normal operations. This more integrated software design process is how project teams are going to make the next leap in energy efficiency and comfort.

smart_gridMaking Microgrids Transaction-Ready

Along with the rapid proliferation of new software services to mine building data in the interest of energy efficiency, improved occupant comfort, streamlined operations workflow, and more automated corporate environmental reporting, there is another force looming on the horizon that is accelerating the trend toward data-driven buildings. Toby Considine describes a new near future in his June column,Time for Buildings to Participate as Distributed System Platforms.  Reporting on the re-casting of utility regulation in New York, and variants of the Electricity Freedom Act moving through half of the states in the USA, he comments “at last, as a matter of regulation and law, every commercial building, industrial site, or home can see new opportunity by acting as a microgrid.” 

Considine also asks the rhetorical question: “How do I make my building present as a distributed system, able to participate in the platform?”  And he answers it with the news “the ASHRAE Facilities Smart Grid Information Model (FSGIM) is soon to be released. FSGIM’s public review began on August 7th and is scheduled to run through October 6th. Allen Jones provides more detail about the model in his August FSGIM article.  The FSGIM models the information that a facility is likely to need in a transactive energy exchange such as demand, pricing, and weather information.

Anyone that wants to understand how the operational analytics software and control methods that power ongoing connected building commissioning can be deployed to centrally monitor a distributed solar installation should check out this article by Alper Uzmezler of BASSG.

EFFICIENCY_COMPASSEfficiency in The Era of Cheap Solar Power

In September, Rocky Mountain Institute Senior Fellow Peter Rumsey asked  “Does Efficiency Still Matter In The Age Of Cheap Solar?.”  It is a thought-provoking question, while highly situationally dependent. The argument in favor of not chasing every wasteful watt and just throwing on more low-cost solar panels could make sense when the solar project is in some remote field supporting a data center or on a spread-out, one-story school campus in a suburban setting. But, roof-top square-footage is a valuable commodity in a city setting. You pay an opportunity cost in opting for dense PV panels; occupants might value a rooftop garden or cafe, garnering higher rents. And denser buildings means more shading, less energy production. PV window glass is another option; however, foregoing energy efficiency measures in favor of more renewables here is likely the most expensive scenario.

The Rumsey article has non-urban data centers as a focus, so low-cost solar could theoretically rule the day. He also anchors his cost calculations on the price differential of purchasing the most energy-efficient HVAC equipment versus a more standard model. A trade-off more akin to swapping out old servers for newer, more power-efficient hardware, than trading up to better control and analytics software. Overall, it’s a thought-provoking article that I highly recommend. He details some high profile reference examples and includes a memorable quote at the end from a California Public Utilities Commissioner, Dian Grueneich, who says “Solar is sexy and people don’t fall in love with efficiency.” 

Altura Associates’ Jim Maclay has witnessed a version of that attitude among California school districts deploying CA Proposition 39 funding.  As he reports in a May 2015 article, some school districts were anxious to use the funding for solar panels and had to be coached into investing in efficiency basics like digital controls and data analytics first. This is because they need to get their buildings under data-driven control to find savings opportunities and to track and report the results, as required by the program.

Prop 39 is a harbinger of the performance-based contracting era to come when financing partners are going to count on measurement and verification capabilities in the controls software to determine payment options and amounts. This is just one more trend that is set to explode on the automation and controls scene. In the face of all these coming disruptive forces, it is a good moment for building owners, their facilities managers and systems integrators to get together to plan how they will navigate the new landscape.

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