By Tim Hayes
November 23, 2015
It’s not often one gets to speak to a room full of state energy officials whose job is to accelerate the adoption of energy efficiency. But that was the fortunate opportunity I had at the annual conference of the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) in San Diego on September 15th. There were over 200 officials from across the country who help write the rules, establish the mandates, and build the incentives for energy efficiency. They are not traditionally technology folks, but curious about the growing potential of smart buildings to be ultra-efficient, and looking for insight into what works in the marketplace and what doesn’t. Better than anyone, they recognize that energy savings from the low hanging fruit—lighting, variable frequency drives, insulation, and other tangibles—is quickly being exhausted. And they understand we have moved into a new era of interactive intelligence, and that it is fast paced, complex, and more difficult to incent. It was an honor to be one of only two smart buildings technology vendors invited to speak at the NASEO conference—NEST, which focuses on the residential market, and BuildingIQ on large commercial and public buildings.
I had to assume most were not familiar with BuildingIQ, so I spent a few minutes up front describing what we do and establishing our credentials. I shared with them the work we have and are doing with some of our partners, like Xcel Energy, Duke Energy, and San Diego Gas & Electric, as well as government agencies, the Department of Energy, Argonne, and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories. I highlighted an implementation where our technology and managed service has taken an already LEED-Gold certified 2.5 million square feet building in New York, and further reduced HVAC energy consumption by more than 15%.
Obstacles to Smart Building Technology
The event organizers requested my presentation focus on obstacles to smart building technology and the areas where improvements could have the greatest impact. First and foremost, I emphasized they need to continue to incent the rapid retirement of older HVAC equipment with modern systems that can interactively communicate with intelligent building management software. Second, upgrading utility rebate tools would be a tremendous help. Most rebates are based on predetermined savings through the use of computer models of programmed environmental conditions. But none of them are truly dynamic in nature. I told them that many of the tools utilities use to establish rebates are just not robust enough to calculate the savings of a smart building technology like BuildingIQ’s, which is continuously reading, adjusting, and optimizing. I explained how our software learns the thermodynamic behavior of a building and, based on variety of parameters, predicts the best course (setpoints) to meet comfort requirements using the least amount of energy then automatically makes it happen. Policy makers really need to help utilities improve their tools for analyzing the results of smart building technologies to better leverage their investments in smart meters. I saw heads nodding and people taking notes.
Third —and they really responded to this one— I told them to look for ways to encourage young people to enter the building operations and engineering professions, the early adopters. I mentioned that when I make my sales calls and go to meetings with decision makers —chief engineers, directors of facilities management, and the like— they are typically of an earlier generation. Many came up from the construction space and are not technologists at heart. They are not early adopter buyers by nature. The traditional technical industries are facing huge retirements of their skilled workers in the next decade. The early adopters are typically younger people, tech-savvy, and comfortable with the idea that Internet-based solutions are critical tools to solve problems or make improvements. While there might be plenty of young people in Silicon Valley writing software to make buildings more efficient, for example, when they try to sell it to a workforce that is 30 years their senior the adoption is not very fast. The answer, as I see it, is not to replace the older, experienced staff but to team them with the younger workforce. But first they have to want to join the profession. I believe NASEO can help facilitate this teamwork.
Fourth, and in very similar vein, I advised them to try to break down the cultural silos that become barriers to smart building technology. In most corporations, the IT department sits in one camp, and represents one skill set and culture. The facilities and operations workforce resides in a completely different camp with a different mindset and culture. For smart building technology to take off, you have to make them partners in building management.
Fifth, there are legacy issues that slow down adoption of smart building technology. A lot of incumbent technology companies have investments in closed technologies that give them a nice steady revenue stream but don’t work well with others. They are closed systems —which remind me of an old IBM computer network, Motorola, or Nortel phone network— where the only things you could attach to their networks were sold by themselves. Well, a lot of the building automation space looks the same: reluctant to more open interoperability. I think policy makers can make a difference by encouraging and incenting more open architectures, which can accelerate innovation. More innovation and consumer choice will lead to faster adoption.
Decision Making Tools: Giving Customers What They Really Want
Given California’s mandates for energy efficiency, most building owners recognize the importance of analytical tools to measure performance and results. This is now a given and everyone in the audience seemed to agree. What is less clear is that analytical tools are not the same as energy conservation measures. Analytical tools provide awareness —which is good— and crunch data —which is essential— and possibly make suggestions or show alternatives, but they do not make decisions; they do not save energy. I pointed out that BuildingIQ is often tossed into the bucket of analytical companies. This is a half-truth. We, of course, use analytics to understand the situation and make projections of energy needs, but our platform goes the next step, beyond analysis into the realm of decision-making. Our software brings intelligence to the building management system (BMS) to automatically optimize HVAC energy consumption and lowest cost. This is what customers want, a self-contained energy efficiency measure and a decision support tool combined. Building owners and operators tell me they want smart building technologies that help them make decisions, know preferences, and —when they want it to — make the decisions to save energy and money.
I saw the audience nodding and smiling when I showed my last slide with a Prius and a smart phone to bring home this point. Well-designed buildings, upgraded with the latest mechanicals, lighting, and even batteries are like the Prius. But if they are poorly operated they will get bad MPGs (or ENERGY STAR® scores). The next generation of smart building technologies are like the driverless car. They will operate the buildings at the highest efficiency, when and only when we want them too, and we will set them up with our preferences — just how we do our phones— then let them figure out the best way for a building to get from point A to point B. Well, at least figuratively speaking.
BuildingIQ offers those capabilities today: decision-making, knowing preferences, on and in control only when desired, and providing plenty of decision support when asked.