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The smart building sector evolves and expands each year, driven by new technologies, applications, regulation and steadily increasing adoption. As we get into the swing of another year of smart building development, some important questions are knocking on our door.

Is this the Best way to Optimize?

The sunrises on a new morning, smart blinds automatically retract to allow the sunlight to illuminate and heat the office to optimum temperature. Forecasting suggests a warm day, so would it be better to just keep the blinds down to reduce the energy needed for cooling? Should we cool or use natural ventilation, and what if someone wants to open a window when it’s warm later, how do we prepare for that?

By 10am half the office has called in sick, did we need to cool the whole building and what difference will the reduced body heat make to the cooling process? And how can we prepare for a cloud that may or may not linger over the building? Things are getting complex. Should the building just react to changes as they happen or can we do more?

A custom designed smart building promises to account for all these dynamic variables while optimizing energy consumption but this is new ground for the building controls sector. We seem to think that feeding all the information into a machine learning system will give us the most efficient result, but what if the data we have chosen to gather holds biases in one way or another? And considering the complexity of those data streams and the relationships between them, how long will it take to learn and can this be faster?

As we push on into a smart building future, we need to continue asking this basic questions in order to ensure we are on the right track.

New Smart Buildings, but what about the Old Ones?

The vast majority of our buildings were built more than a decade ago and they represent the bulk of unnecessary energy loss from total building stock. A standard investment grade audit (IGA) can take months of data collection and that data requires hundreds of hours of modelling and calibration. Are we really tackling the building efficiency problem unless we are able to streamline the smart retrofitting process?

Then consider that all that time consuming energy modeling is unlikely to influence a building owner’s decision to go smart as much as; the initial cost of installation, changing building regulation, availability of financing, tax considerations, incentives and rebates. Could our retrofit assessment process be adapted to minimize detailed energy information gathering until these other factors are better assessed? Would a basic initial energy assessment suffice, in order to speed the process and get more buildings online?

With 40% of total energy consumption coming from buildings, and the vast majority of that from older buildings, retrofitting must take greater priority when striving for energy efficiency. This means creating a faster, more efficient, retrofitting assessment and installation processes, ideally within a favorable financial and regulatory environment.

What is the True Value of Efficiency?

In order to make good decisions we need accurate quantitative information. However, the energy efficiency industry today is still lacking in both accuracy and measurable data. These basic elements are the foundation of all efficiency decisions in buildings and there is significant space for improvement.

Our sector is flooded with misinformation, unsubstantiated claims and distinct lack of official grading and certification. There seems to be no criteria to call a product “green”, for example, and no one to assess false claims, let alone act upon them. Almost two years ago today, Memoori reported on Bloom Energy who soared to over a $1 billion valuation, based on private fundraising alone, despite serious questions about their self-proclaimed “green” technology.

Once accuracy is achieved, we still need to quantify energy savings and encourage them.The Negawatt power concept does exactly that but is yet to take shape, despite being theorized in 1985, by Rocky Mountain Institute environmentalist Amory Lovins. A negawatt is the opposite of a watt and can be traded in much the same way. The proposal would allow demand side resources to participate in wholesale energy markets.

It is “generally cheaper to save fuel than to burn it, global warming, acid rain, and urban smog can be reduced not at a cost but at a profit”, according to Lovins, energy savings could “be treated as a commodity just like copper or sowbellies”. Energy consumers could fund efficiency installations by selling the subsequent negawatts. However, this would require a new “business structure that will thrive in the negawatt market, which has not yet been developed.”

The reasons this system, or one that serves the same purpose, has not been fully adopted is another discussion, and a complex one. What is clear, however, is that by prioritizing the creation of an environment that encourages, even rewards, energy savings, we will see the greatest results. In our world of ever-rising demand, every watt saved is a watt gained.

It is well and good to gain confidence from what we have achieved in the smart building sector. However we should not get complacent and forget to periodically reassess our priorities, know our limits, consider what we are missing, and contemplate the changes that will have the greatest impact. Are we creating profit, or are we creating efficiency, and can we do both?

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