How Building Data Can Help Utilities Make Informed Customer Operation Decisions

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How Building Data Can Help Utilities Make Informed Customer Operation Decisions

 By Brian Van Buskirk


By 2021 there will be over 3.6 billion connected devices installed in smart commercial buildings, making up a very significant proportion of all connected devices. For the first time, this smart technology allows us to understand and control our environments like never before.

Understanding performance on items such as lighting, security and HVAC control can significantly shape our environments to enhance the health and wellbeing of building occupants. And behind this technology is data analytics, which improves building functionality on multiple levels.

Similarly, with the introduction of technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), utilities are forced to adapt to the increasing digitization of the industry, especially in the world of increased customer choice. All the while, utilities must still maintain stable grids with affordable and quality energy supply.

The importance of utilities embracing new technological trends, rather than “racing to be second,” was recently discussed by Dr. Franz Strempfl on Greentech Media,who said, “We need more free room to make pilots, to make new, innovative projects.”

Like many forms of technology, building IoT provides valuable insight for utilities looking to increase customer engagement and make informed operational decisions. Here are a few ways utilities can capitalize on smart and green building data.

Real-Time Solutions and Insights

One way that utilities can use IoT and data to enhance customer experience is through the promotion of products that focus on real-time results and insights. For example, smart thermostats are part of a growing number of energy efficiency tools developed in recent years that are monitored and controlled remotely by users. The thermostats have been shown to reduce customer energy bills, and in large numbers, they could significantly reduce electric grid load, especially during hot summer months when air conditioning use is high.

In addition to smart thermostats, real-time commissioning is also a great way for utilities to take control of smart building data and IoT technology. Real-time commissioning uses high-resolution wireless sensors to capture building environmental data coupled with smart-meter energy consumption data to optimize building performance, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality.

Achieving this optimal balance reduces energy consumption while improving occupant comfort, which also increases productivity and reduces absenteeism - and will ultimately save money. For example, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review estimated that the benefits of higher ventilation are valued between $6,500 and $7,500 per person per year.

Scheduled performance checks on HVAC equipment do not necessarily equate to the re-commissioning of the HVAC system. The performance of the HVAC system will drift over time. The resulting inefficiencies can result from insufficient maintenance or changes in the use of a building. Building areas that were once comfortable become insufficiently or overly cooled/heated, leading to occupant complaints. Without question, energy efficiency suffers in this scenario.

This ongoing process resolves operational problems, improves tenant comfort, and optimizes energy use for existing buildings. On-going real-time commissioning can also significantly extend the useful life of HVAC equipment. By reading and analyzing various aspects of energy use, such as HVAC and refrigeration, utilities can offer new touchpoints and solutions for these necessities.

Real-time commissioning also goes beyond HVAC and can be applied to a whole building. Arbnco’s Real-Time Commissioning solution utilizes energy modeling, wireless sensors, and reporting for consistent real-time data capture throughout the building.

To begin, building owners and facility managers need to use monitoring technology in the current indoor environment to establish performance benchmarking and baseline energy consumption visibility. By utilizing this information, engineers track performance gains in the building once wireless monitoring is deployed.

With arbn well as an example, wireless high-resolution sensors are deployed within the building occupant work space to capture real-time data on temperature, humidity, CO2, total volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and lighting – indicators of indoor environmental quality and occupant comfort.
Once data is collected and baseline energy consumption is visible to identify improvement measures for cost savings, real-time building optimization is enabled. This includes the direct integration of thermal comfort and indoor air quality indicators with the building control systems, achieving  a previously unobtainable level of performance optimization. And more importantly, real-time commissioning continually monitors the building space for changes in operating parameters while recommending actions to address performance drift.

By working together with building engineers and facility managers to integrate smart meters with commissioning services, utilities can directly facilitate cost savings and further options for customers.  

The Importance of Energy Modeling

One of the most common methods utilities can utilize to increase customer operation decisions is offering building operators and commercial customers energy modeling. Energy modeling compares how multiple combinations of building systems and components perform to optimize energy efficiency, minimizing  the overall investment.

Modeling provides options that identify and allow businesses to decide on the best combination of projected energy cost savings, initial expenditures, incentives, payback duration, and energy use per square foot. One such example is Xcel Energy’s Minnesota Energy Design Assistance (EDA) program, which provides energy modeling services to customers as they begin new construction and major renovation projects.

Benefits of energy modeling include cost reduction, increased control and benchmarking,  and occupancy analysis to understand energy and integration with demand-controlled technologies. In addition, measuring the impact of energy efficiencies implemented verifies cost savings.

Utilities are traditionally seen as providers, but with technology and programs like the examples above, they can become more than providers  Adopting energy modeling solutions for buildings helps utilities become collaborators and expert resources for strategic energy management.

Designing Varied Optimization Programs

It is important to understand that in the building optimization industry, one solution does not fit all. Programs must be designed on a case by case basis in order to fit a building or organization’s specific goals surrounding functionality, energy use, and cost savings. It is also imperative to take the building’s purpose into account. For example, a university facility will have different needs than a medical or recreation facility.

Additionally, when it comes to choosing a program, often overall goals are evaluated on a case by case basis. Some building managers simply want to save money while others are interested in promoting occupant wellness and comfort. All of these aspects must be taken into account whenever an optimization program is being created in order for it to be effective.

Sensor technology is also very effective for many building optimization cases. Sensor technology is used in various ways, either reporting directly to the operators or used in a larger system that adjusts features in real-time to improve quality. As part of a larger smart building initiative, utilities should feel motivated to implement sensor technology that focuses on overall performance goals.

Brian Van Buskirk leads Strategy and product management and arbnco’s North American operations. He is a senior energy executive with 20+ years expertise in Energy Efficiency and Distributed Energy Resources program design, operations, and business development.

This article is republished from the June 2020 issue of Strategies, AESP’s exclusive magazine for members. To receive Strategies, please consider joining AESP.

AESP leads a vibrant community of professionals dedicated to improving energy efficiency through learning, networking and knowledge sharing.
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 2, 2020

Thanks Brian-- do you think sensors and automation can completely supplant pulling of behavioral levers from the actual people? It seems like the best bet might be a marriage between automated insights and customer intervention, but the human side I think needs to be engaged as well

Levin Nock, PhD's picture
Levin Nock, PhD on Nov 13, 2020

Networked lighting controls (NLC) provide networked, powered sensor locations evenly distributed throughout occupied spaces.  More and more NLC systems support communication between luminaire-integrated sensors and other building systems (HVAC, security, etc.), using API, BACnet or Bluetooth mesh.  Ceiling luminaires are ideally placed for sensors such as occupancy and air quality, while temperature sensors located at occupant-level can be added to an existing network.  The recent D4i intra-luminaire protocol supports standardized digital communication for sensors, future-proofing the network to support more and better sensors as time goes by.  To help their customers save energy while increasing occupant comfort, efficiency programs need to incentivize networked lighting control systems as an IoT foundation.

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