Many factors influence the building energy management industry on an ongoing basis—some are specific to the field, some spurred by the broader tech industry— and it can be hard to distinguish what is and isn’t a short-lived fad. But, there are some trends that have been picking up steam and are expected to help shape its future. These are four that I think are worth watching:
The tech industry is infatuated with the idea of recreating the world around us in a digital form —from turning people into avatars, to creating digital worlds, to 3D printing. Within the energy management industry, the ability to create a digital version of a building’s physical infrastructure has an actual practical application.
Occupancy, comfort, thermal, and weather models contribute to the creation of a digital twin of a building. These models provide valuable information into a building’s performance from an energy consumption perspective. The digital twin can be further enhanced by the addition of machine learning and cloud computing to create a system whose output is insight into the predicted behavior of a building that simply cannot be obtained from merely observing models by themselves. The digital twin is able to show how a building would respond to numerous variable changes in real-time and can help create a responsive building design.
A responsive built environment can overcome the intermittency problem of renewables—the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine! This real-time capability of solving intermittency and the need to respond to future energy related data —such as power source— can only be made possible through a digital twin equipped with machine learning and the power of cloud computing. Digital twins don’t replace a BMS. Instead, they help transform it into very powerful IoT solutions —as long as the digital twin is allowed to perform control. This powerful combination —digital twin plus BMS— is a tremendous boon to the building industry and a significant trend.
Legacy players within the energy and building management spaces are tied to their own technologies and mechanical solutions. This pigeonholes a building and limits its options in terms of upgrades and the use of new technologies. A building essentially becomes restrained by its own infrastructure.
Building-by-building, established mechanical system (BMS) providers can be successful on an asset centric-strategy for a limited time. However, more and more commercial owners are looking to gain benefits across a portfolio and seeking a means to make older assets energy efficient economically. Due to years of changes, expansions, fixes, and preferences from pervious managers, it’s common to find multiple brands of mechanical infrastructures or BMS solutions within a portfolio of buildings – each exhibiting some dysfunction. This has created a demand for agnostic, future-proof solutions that can unify assets.
For energy management, energy-as-a-service or comfort-as-a-service are examples of such future-proof solutions. These solutions leverage data as any IoT (Internet of Things) solution would, and being software-based, they can be customized to the existing infrastructure of a building and upgraded with new features as needed. So while the existing system retains its value, the data from the system along with new IoT hardware makes the overall system exponentially more powerful and beneficial to the owner. Software solutions that sit atop the existing BMS allow multiple buildings energy management to be taken to a cloud-based platform – providing a portfolio-wide view of energy efficiency, preserving investments in BMS assets, and lowering capital expenditures.
Commoditization of Hardware in the Small and Medium Buildings (SMB) Market
While IoT solutions have been viewed as an avenue to unify portfolios. They are also allowing small- and medium-sized buildings to leapfrog traditional BMS solutions in favor of pure IoT configurations. Without legacy infrastructure, an onsite operations team, or strong vendor relationships, it makes sense for these buildings to use IoT solutions to outsource energy management.
IoT-type BMS solutions have two key characteristics that were not part of the rationale behind the design of “traditional” BMS. One refers to the data. While the hardware still serves the crucial function of controlling the space, its modern purpose is to generate data for cloud computing, analysis, and diagnosis. The more data is pushed to the cloud the better. Two, cloud-control is the new black. In a complete rebuttal of traditional BMS-think, the software should control the system externally. Taken to a logical conclusion, the hardware becomes a commodity. In the end, it’ll be about the data.
Facility Manager to Enterprise Application Manager
The concept of an overworked and tightly budgeted facilities staff is not new. What is new is the emergence and continued acceptance of software tools and cloud-based services as fundamental tools to be included in a facility manager’s quiver. Facility managers are already becoming more comfortable with the use of software-based solutions. This will be accelerated as a new generation —that is more accepting to the use of technology— comes into the facilities management workforce.
Some view technology as a replacement for the facility manager’s role within a building. But, this is really a mistake. The way I see it, facility managers will be at the leading edge of adopting tools that can augment their abilities —rather than replace them. Their knowledge of the nuances of their buildings and the tenants they work with, create valuable context that would be impossible to replicate through data by itself. There will be a stronger acceptance of cloud-driven BMS and BMS plus IoT solutions within a building as a true data system within an organization. As it becomes more of a data network, it will become more of an enterprise application and finally recognized as a system of strategic importance, in addition to being an opportunity for generating free cash flow. And who will manager this system? The next generation facility manager.
While there are many factors that could change the energy management space, these four are clear trends and they have been developing over time. The facilities management profession has been slow to fully embrace IoT and cloud-based solutions and all that they entail, but attitudes are changing and will continue to lead to significant shifts —for the better— within the building energy management space.