The Next Wave of Energy Conservation: Collaborative Business Districts

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Click for more legible image. Graphic credit: Tridium

by James A. Bacon

As the Obama administration presses forward with its campaign to restructure the U.S. electric industry to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its friends in the environmental movement have touted the potential for energy conservation to ease the transition to a clean energy economy. One key premise of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan EPA plan is that it should be possible to cut energy demand by 1.5% annually over the next 15 years from what it otherwise would be. The EPA is short on specifics, however. It’s not clear exactly where those energy savings would come from.

As it happens, there is tremendous potential to conserve energy — way beyond weatherizing old houses and installing Energy Star appliances. An entire industry, the building automation industry, has arisen around the opportunity to squeeze energy savings out of office, retail and industrial buildings. Although there are many other applications for building automation, the most tangible Return on Investment comes from reducing electricity consumption from HVAC, lighting, computers and industrial processes.

The industry is charging full-steam ahead with no special incentives from government. Property owners find that installing building automation systems is a competitive use of capital that lowers operating costs. Even more encouraging, the industry could be just scratching the surface of potential savings. Energy conservation could move to a new, higher plateau if property owners began collaborating.

Wayne C. Tighe, vice president of sales for Tridium Inc., a company for which I have done some free-lance work, has written an important paper for ei, a magazine of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. The next step, he says, is for the industry to move from creating open building systems. in which different devices within a building talk to one another, to open city systems, in which different buildings and municipal infrastructure systems talk to one another.

Tridium provides an open platform, Niagara, that connects dozens of different types of sensors and devices inside buildings. “But we see no logical reason,” writes Tighe, “why connectivity should end at the property line. Our goal is to integrate buildings with each other and with municipal systems.” He continues:

Building automation systems optimize energy consumption of HVAC, lighting, elevators, servers and computers, and other electricity-consuming devices inside buildings and building complexes. But commercial buildings plug into electric grids. Smart grid technologies enable power companies to become defter at managing electric loads. Utilities are experimenting with time-of-day pricing, load shedding, and other strategies to reduce peak electric loads.

The more data that power companies and commercial buildings can share, the more power companies can curtail capital expenditures that get passed on to ratepayers. Sharing energy consumption data also opens the potential for businesses to generate and share their own power in eco-districts — installing solar power, perhaps, or generating electric power and utilizing heat waste.

Tighe describes other benefits from what he calls the “open Internet of Things”: water conservation; conservation of outdoor lighting; improved tracking of employees, visitors and their cars; optimization of space dedicated to parking; and transportation demand management.

From a managerial perspective, implementing building automation in individual buildings is simple —  there’s only one property owner to deal with. Creating functional groups out of the businesses, government entities and non-profit groups across an entire business district, with all their conflicting priorities and financial capabilities, is more complicated. But that’s the future of energy conservation.

Tighe’s article highlights Envision Charlotte, the not-for-profit group that has pulled together 61 of the 64 largest buildings in downtown Charlotte, N.C., to promote sustainability as a competitive economic advantage. I don’t see any comparable activity here in the Old Dominion. We’d better get moving soon, or once again we Virginians will find ourselves eating Tarheel dust.

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3 responses to “The Next Wave of Energy Conservation: Collaborative Business Districts

  1. “HAL, why won’t my new 50-inch plasma TV come on? I’d like to watch the game.”
    “Sorry, Dave. There has been a surge in demand half a mile away, and the grid needed to compensate in order to meet our 20 percent reduction goal.”
    “But HAL, I installed all of the LED bulbs you wanted and I’m showering in 90 degree water. I thought I’d earned enough credits for a little big screen time?”
    “Dave, this is your last warning before I send the terminator unit to your door…”

    Ok, kidding, but there was a very serious debate in the General Assembly yesterday about privacy and surveillance and law enforcement, and the kind of data network you are describing will only raise more such issues. The Internet of Things won’t be without some dangers.

  2. The question in Virginia is – what do you do with a company whose profitability and appeal to investors rests on how much electricity it can sell – not how much is saved?

    Is Dominion becoming the Kodak or Blockbuster Video of the electricity industry?

    One would think that these 21st century technologies would be a tremendous opportunity for Dominion to sell value-added services to their customers.

    At some point – one has to wonder who Dominion has allegiance to – it’s investors or it’s ratepayers.

    I notice that folks like ALEC have no words of advice to legislators on issues like this…it seems that saving corporations taxes and from regulation is one thing but saving money on electricity for users and ratepayers is a whole other ball game and not something they’re particularly interested in.

    where is that ALEC legislative agenda for energy conservation and saving taxpayers money on electricity?

  3. We can’t even get signal lights timed for better traffic flow and, according to MWCOG, lower carbon emissions. And Fairfax County is promoting Tysons by encouraging newer buildings to do creative nighttime lighting with colors.

    Larry, in rate-of-return regulation, costs for taxes and regulatory compliance are included in the revenue requirement used to set consumer electric rates. The fewer costs, the lower the rates for electricity.

    ” improved tracking of employees, visitors and their cars.” Now that is scary. Not that terrorists could hack a system and cause harm to people.

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