As COVID-19 cases rose and lockdown measures came into effect around the world, commercial building occupancy dropped dramatically, from 100% to almost zero in the space of a week in many places. Many might expect near-zero occupancy to mean near-zero energy consumption, but new data reveals that this is not the case. In fact, many offices, shopping malls, and entertainment complexes are consuming 80% or more of their usual full-occupancy energy levels, highlighting huge cost implications for businesses, building owners, and the environment.
In the UK, energy performance consultants Carbon Intelligence revealed that energy use across a sample of 300 office, hotels, and retail buildings dropped on average by just 16% in the last week of March, when the government mandated that people socially distance, avoid travel, and work from home. Despite the UK’s strict social distancing measures preventing all non-essential staff from entering these buildings, the worst 10% of buildings still used approximately 97% of their typical energy demand.
“Unfortunately the vast majority of buildings are not managed well. That has become really obvious during the lockdown. The average building – despite being empty – is still using over 80% of the energy it consumes when it is full. Which is mad,” Cian Duggan, founder of Carbon Intelligence, said in an interview with i. “If you’re not achieving savings in the region of 50%, then you’re leaving money on the table and you’re contributing unnecessarily to the climate change problem.”
In the US, commercial centers like New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area have seen the greatest declines in overall energy consumption, with the Energy Information Administration forecasting a potential 4.7% annual decline in 2020. The organization’s Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) this August predicts carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to decrease by 11.5% (588 million metric tons) in 2020, a record decline due to restrictions on business and travel activity and slowing economic growth related to COVID-19 and its various mitigation efforts.
This is great news for the environment and our efforts to combat climate change but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been better with a little more help from our “smart” buildings. According to Hatch Data, which monitors 400 million square feet of commercial real estate for more than 250 clients, office building energy consumption fell steadily through March and into April, but it did not fall off a cliff. “It was a bit surprising, looking at the data, that these reductions weren’t larger,” Ben Mendelson, the firm’s CCO and co-founder, said in an interview last week, “at least at first glance.”
While there are many examples of wasted energy from unprepared building owners and operators failing to grasp the situation and take measures to reduce the cost and environmental impact of their facilities — the reality is that you can’t just turn off a building, they just weren’t designed that way. Emergency lighting and security are essentially “always-on” technologies, while other systems need significant care and maintenance in order to be shut-off for any significant length of time. “Commercial buildings are way more complex than homes. Unless you are totally mothballing a building, it’s very hard to switch off everything,” said Duggan.
HVAC systems generally account for at least a third of building energy consumption, but the mechanics and the substances used for their operation need to be active to avoid damaging the system itself — uncirculated water leading to corrosion, for example. Elevators left off for long-periods will require attention from technicians before resuming, lighting must comply with minimum safety codes at all times, while security systems have a purpose, even when there are no people to protect. Just like when workers go home at the end of the day, the building hums in anticipation of their return.
Data servers running business tasks must remain on to support the fully active remote workforce, while those running building tasks must support minimum system levels and remote operation. Furthermore, in the rush out of the office as lockdowns set in, millions of coffee machines, water coolers, computers, and other appliances were left plugged-in, resulting in a significant cumulative stand-by power strain that now seems very unnecessary. Not many building operators have a single button that can identify and turn-off all those appliances, but maybe they should.
As the fear of second waves of the virus turns into a realization that the first wave is still going strong, we must begin to accept that we are moving into a COVID-era that may last quite a while. If a vaccine is developed by the summer of 2021, it will be the fastest ever developed, and if we can vaccinate the world in a decade it will be a major achievement. The virus is here to stay and that means buildings will be in and out of use, unlikely to ever reach the pre-COVID occupancy levels and often completely empty.
Rather than using all its energy to fight this reality with in-building social distancing and hygiene policies or technologies, the industry should spare some effort to create a stand-by mode for buildings. That “single button” that can reduce energy consumption down to a minimum, whether for 50% occupancy or for zero.
That low-energy water circulating HVAC mode, elevator hibernation setting, or emergency and security systems that can turn-off more when there are no people to protect. True smart buildings are those that adapt to their purpose at any time, and in the COVID-era that purpose is often to turn-off better.