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Creating Connected Buildings is a Matter Of Execution, Not Technology

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This article is republished from the July 2019 issue of Strategies, AESP’s exclusive magazine for members. To receive Strategies, please consider joining AESP.


Creating Connected Buildings is a Matter Of Execution, Not Technology

By Lois Gordon



The outlook for connected building technologies has never been brighter. Connected buildings have the potential to do more than just demand response (DR), which used to mean dimming the lights or increasing discomfort by turning the thermostat up so you're too hot, or turning the heat down so you're too cold. DR has, for many, meant inconvenience. With the advanced state of connected building technologies, we don't have to be asking for sacrifices. In fact, we can do DR without people even really noticing. 

It’s possible because there are at least half a dozen—and perhaps as many as two dozen—software platforms that are being designed with the express purpose to control building systems. The end goal of many of these systems is to be able to create either a localized grid asset, which some people would call a microgrid, or they're just intending to use a building as part of a flexible grid. 

It's an aspirational goal, still. 

Connected Building Platforms Are Ready to Work

These platforms are trying to connect systems that, currently, aren't connected and are from many different vintages. The situation may start with a proprietary energy management system, which is typically found in larger, more sophisticated office buildings. Next you may find connected and controlled lighting technologies that are unfortunately not connected to the energy management system. Moreover, some building owners have gone forward and installed solar PV, with its own management system within the building. The more ambitious owners may also be installing electric vehicle charging, which is yet another system.

The challenge to the overarching software platforms is to be able to integrate these disparate energy systems with smart meter data and create one dashboard so that the building operator can understand and control the many systems in a building, keep occupants comfortable and save money, energy and carbon. 

These platforms are showing some very strong potential. They mostly work as intended. They can connect equipment. They can accept the logic for different scenarios, so they can adapt to the proprietary nature of each situation. This suggests that they in fact can create grid assets, at the building level and at the microgrid level.

It’s A Question of Execution, Not Technology

With the software and the technology in place, the challenge rests in execution. This is the case because buildings are very individual. Each 100,000 square foot building, for example, has different controls, different equipment, different schedules, and different needs of the occupants than other comparable buildings. We understand what's motivating building owners to want better building connectivity and controls—lower energy bills. But what's motivating their building operators to change how they work, or trades to learn new skills? 

We call this the human effect. The best technology can be completely undone by intentional and unintentional acts of humans. Most solutions that do not consider the necessary human involvement end up not realizing their potential savings or having the effect that they were designed to have. In this case, we're asking building operators, electrical workers, HVAC contractors and others in the marketplace to fundamentally change the way they do their job. This learning curve is going to take support and some very well targeted training and support materials.

A Collaboration Approach to the Human Challenge 

We are seeing progress towards mitigating the human effect in California. Heat pumps are one of the target technologies for water heating and space heating, within residential and commercial markets. They're very controllable within connected buildings. One of ASWB’s customers, a major utility in California, is tasked to encourage electrification in its service area, and heat pumps are one targeted technology. However integrating heat pumps into building energy management systems is somewhat new to building owners, operators and HVAC technicians.

The model for pushing this forward is for the utility to partner with the manufacturers to address the whole market, more than any one of them could do on their own. They came to us to create that curriculum and provide the training throughout California that scales the industry capability to understand and implement complicated building codes, market and install advanced technologies, and develop highly marketable new skills for HVAC trade allies.

This new model of market engagement—that brings together manufacturers, distributors and trade organizations and aligns the objectives of the market and the utility—is a proven market transformation approach. The next step will be to expand the model to the rest of the connected building infrastructure. To that end, the California Energy Commission, through the EPIC program, has efforts underway to create easy-to-use resources including tailored building information, discounts on technologies, financing, training and trades. This may be the market driven collaborative model that provides the reach and scale to answer the question – who at the building level will build the distributed grid?

Lois Gordon is the CEO of ASWB Engineering, which helps public agencies, businesses, utilities, and other institutions in behind-the-meter demand management. 


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