By David Engle
Clouds, buildings, meters, grids—they’re all smart now, and, suddenly as if on signal, they’re pooling their brainpower to assume control of onsite energy usage on an unprecedented scale. Smart meters and smart grids are well-known; cloud computing complements them in the information technology (IT) space. The newcomer here, as the following report outlines, is the advent of more fully automated, energy-efficient
buildings. Clouds, meters, and grids are all collaborating to take building automation systems (BAS) and energy management systems (EMS) to a new level of control and integration.
Powering the convergence of these and other elements are several factors:
First, there’s the heavily government-subsidized, break-neck-paced installation of utility smart meters on homes and businesses nationally. This is happening in tandem with tiered time-of-use utility rates going steadily up, despite cheaper natural gas supply.
Second, there’s the rapid expansion in cloud and mobile computing. This has triggered an avalanche of measurable energy data, easy to access. The IT industry is engaged in an epochal reorganization to manage it.
Third, the markets for BAS/EMS services for single campuses and complexes has matured. Demand is leveling off. This wind-down has spurred vendors to explore the next market tier, a universe of mid-sized facilities. Especially ripe are huge chain stores needing enterprise-wide solutions.
Underlying all these is the fact that congested urban areas simply can’t bring in enough power to meet growing demand. So, rate-setting bodies are compelled to raise electricity rates, to force energy conservation and make it pay.
One formal assessment of what’s been happening comes in a recent report titled “Smart Buildings Global Market Forecast, 2010–2015,” from IDC Energy Insights, Framingham, MA. In it, IDC projects compounded yearly spending growth of more than 28%, in what it calls “the commercial smart building systems market,” for a six-year span.
“Smart buildings” basically means, as the study explains, ones that have been efficiency-optimized in the usual, long-established way, but the smart label now applies to reflect the presence of the newly installed smart meters, busily logging usage, signaling utility needs, and beaming back consumption stats.
Here, the commercial real estate industry’s response to digital meters and higher bills seems rather unlike the pushback and controversy being raised these days among residential ratepayers. In the latter case, a host of objections are being voiced by anti-smart-meter activists, on issues ranging from health and safety fears to critiques of wireless security vulnerabilities, cost impact, and invasiveness. For whatever reasons, nothing equivalent is being heard in the retail and commercial facility world, at least not among the adopters of EMS/BAS solutions. Rather, IDC’s report forecasts long-term demand for anything that can quantify and analyze building energy use; this comes along as a natural market response.
IDC’s Casey Talon, a report coauthor, describes a next-generation smart building tech boom underway, moving “beyond traditional building automation.” Sites are now being equipped, she notes, “with intelligent technologies that enable managers to measure, monitor, control, and optimize” performance, beyond anything that was doable before. In this smart building sector, “analytics and data management are really crucial,” she says, as systems become “integrative and fully optimized, with a lot of real-time data.”
In the expanded descriptions that follow, it may be recognizable that this stepped-up energy measurement is simply reminiscent of classic building energy audits. These typically do three or four functions in sequence:
- Scrutinize a site’s energy bills over time, to see what’s being spent and to decipher utility rate-structure impact.
- Break out specific consumption of each site system and component. Auditors will also usually look at equipment age, condition, and efficiency, comparing it to latest-generation hardware that might be bought to replace it.
- Lastly comes the auditor’s report, suggesting energy-saving measures like new lighting or automated controls, HVAC variable air volume handlers, etc. These are usually assigned priorities based on payback.
So, by analogy, the next-generation EMS does “smarter” energy audits, in a sense (and much else): they pursue similar metrics to enable site owners to make similar decisions. The key difference is in their expanded scale, pace, and accessibility.
Naturally, scores of smaller component makers are also busy repurposing their networking and metering and measuring hardware, and software, to assimilate it to the smart building juggernaut. One illustration is meter-maker Davidge Controls, of Santa Ynez, CA. For many years the firm sold its EZ Meter product, originally meant for kilowatt-hour submetering for tenant billing purposes—“at places like marinas, RV parks, and manufacturing sites,” says general manager Ryan Fetgatter.
But, he says, his latest mission has been to take the meter “to a whole new level,” in which submetering is optimized for logging power for building systems and subsystems. Instead of being for billing alone, EZ Meters can now measure component or process usage to improve energy management.
Next, Fetgatter expounds a bit on the practical difficulties and challenges of this effort (further echoed by others below). At a typical multi-submeter installation, he notes, the task is first to assign and affix meters appropriately; then, to gather data from multiple signals; then, to link the data flow to analytical software. Here arises, though, a major, but perhaps surprising, hurdle that is actually quite common.
In our Wi-Fi-ready world, we all know that laptops and smart phones happily log in to hot spots and begin networking wirelessly. So Fetgatter’s commercial clients often imagine that their seemingly “similar” site submeter network will also pop forth rather routinely. But in the real-world commercial/industrial EMS space, says Fetgatter, there’s firstly, “a huge lack of standardization” to contend with. “You have a bunch of different ideas out there that haven’t really synchronized at all,” he says.
For example, when attempting connectivity, “You’re normally messing with a large room area,” he adds. “You have a lot of concrete. And you’re in an industrial plant that probably was not designed for radio frequencies.”
With that wireless networking hope shot down, “the alternative is hardwire,” he says. “But that’s a lot of wires” at great expense.
Your third option is “to just go straight to the cell phone.” By this he means that Davidge’s specially adapted meters are each expected to “talk” to receptors via the national cell networks. Now the cost to gather and share data has soared to thousands of dollars per unit.
Similar cautions about the difficulties of BAS/EMS integration are voiced by mechanical engineer Erik Ring, of a California integrated design firm, LPA Inc. Although pieces of integration “are emerging,” he says, a fuller realization “is still maybe held back . . . by some long-ingrained separations in the construction industry, which sometimes get in the way.”
Thus, for example, one engineer bids HVAC system and controls; a different subcontractor does the solar photovoltaic (PV); a third handles lighting controls, and so on. “Even though the capability certainly exists for one EMS to control, monitor, talk to, and deal with all those systems, frankly there is no integration really taking place,” he says, and sites wind up with disjointed controls.
The Open Standards Movement
Still another concurring perspective comes from Paul Meng, a principal at an automated building technologies integrator firm known since 1998 as CommBT, with offices in Bethesda, MD, and Tampa, FL. In 2010—in step with the IT device zeitgeist—CommBT rebranded its company as Smart Buildings Technologies (SmartBT).
SmartBT serves many government and military sites, in particular, implementing BACnet products, which use ModBus, LonWorks, and other legacy drivers, Meng notes. Besides these, he adds, “there are a lot of other product applications associated with building controls, such as submetering, energy dashboards, and lighting controls.” Each brings its own quirks, standards, and protocols.
This profusion complicates life for vendors and buyers alike. The latter must first decide (a) whether to allow an integrator like SmartBT to custom-design a system, or (b) take the less complicated (but usually pricier) route of tying-in with a big-name “do it all” brand, i.e., a Siemens, Johnson Controls, or Honeywell.
Here, Meng’s recommendation embraces the open platform model as the alternative—which is also emerging, he believes, as a larger industry preference, at least in some markets. He explains: “More and more customer are becoming savvy that they want their systems to be open. They don’t want to be sole-sourced or stuck to one provider of technology or services down the road.”
Moreover, open source is especially apt when doing building energy retrofits, because open source offers the advantages of lower cost, greater flexibility, and extensibility. Here, the diversity of open source products, vendors, and contractors is not a complicating obstacle (as one might think from other criticisms just noted) but, rather, a benefit: it ensures keen price competition and a wider choice of solutions.
On the other hand, Meng finds that many design engineers remain cautious, and, when specifying for new building designs, tend to place confidence “in a Trane, Johnson, or Siemens,” rather than cobbling together wares of multiple vendors.
Incidentally, in Meng’s own clientele these days, he cites lighting controls as the “hot item” in building automation and efficiency now. For easy networking he likes an IP-based light switch from YWire Technologies, using a router installed on an electric panel. “The power wiring that’s already in place communicates from the BAS to each individual light switch,” he says.
Meng sums up: “The ultimate design goal is, frankly, to gather control of as many of the building loads as possible. Whatever electrical consumption is being used for lighting or motors or whatever, the more control you have of that load, the greater the ability to manage the cost.”
Integrating Sites by the Hundreds
Another very different look at the question comes from BAS giant Siemens.
Very successful for years, installing its equipment in office complexes, hospitals and campuses, Siemens Building Technologies (SBT, Buffalo Grove, IL) in 2010 began looking at doing similar services for the “small commercial” space. This sector means virtually everything in size up to a Home Depot or Walmart.
After looking at the prospects here, the company found a surprisingly ripe, “basically untapped market,” reports Marcus Boerkei, general manager of SBT retail and commercial system. “There has not been a significant move into energy efficiency here yet,” he says.
What’s most notable, though, is, of course, the fact that big chains operate not as standalone sites, but “in fleets of often hundreds, if not thousands, of stores in all 50 states,” says Boerkei. They require integrated BAS/EMS on an extraordinary and unprecedented scale.
Moreover, the complexities posed by this fact differ by orders of magnitude from those of a single campus. With scores or hundreds of facility locations to equip, manage, maintain, and optimize, “a much broader engagement becomes necessary,” says Boerkei, involving thousands of managers, employees, and technicians, and many more thousands of far-flung pieces of equipment to be wired and harnessed. Energy to power them all is likewise acquired from potentially hundreds of utilities operating under a dizzying assortment of rate structures.
As Boerkei recounts how this opportunity was undertaken, Siemens’ natural first step was to rescale existing BAS elements down to mid-box-store size. However, he recalls, “It turned out relatively quickly that it wasn’t working,” for an assortment of reasons.
So, in order to advance quickly and successfully into this huge opportunity, in 2010 Siemens acquired a business called Site Controls LLC, of Austin, TX. The latter was already engaged in equipping retail stores since 2004; it owned appealing technology, and it could boast many successes (e.g., a shoe chain, family style restaurants, a fitness club chain, and crafts chain Michael’s).
Siemens, for its part, brought along synergies: a strong brand, its manufacture of electrical distribution and many other building retrofit products (e.g., Sylvannia), its financial strength, and a support network of 110 offices.
No problems are posed here, either, with incompatible protocols of disparate vendor parts.
But, again, the challenge consisted of managing huge volumes of data from equipment and sites nationwide, affordably. To appreciate the issue, consider a single-site BAS for comparison. As Boerkei and his associate from the former Site Controls, Dan Kubala, explain, “If something isn’t working right for a piece of equipment, it generates an alarm, and technicians respond.”
For one locale this works fine. But multiply all the signaling by many thousands of components, and technicians quickly become swamped by this. Typically, says Boerkei, “they are forced to ignore the alarms.”
Under Siemens’ new rearrangement, however, “alarms” are eliminated, replaced by more sedate “exceptions.” Though still numerous and constant, they can be readily managed by applying “very sophisticated analytics to prioritize them.” The data-center cloud can then recommend proactive assessments, schedule preventive maintenance, or dispatch intervention, etc., as needed.
A second key service element from Siemens involves intensive liaison with a client’s utility providers, to help clients sign up to gain revenues from things like load balancing and demand response.
Siemens is even planning for the future day when a retailer’s customers’ electric vehicles will need to charge up at store parking lots (in effect, phasing-out gas stations).
Boerkei sums up by saying that he would even go so far as to characterize Siemens “more and more as an IT company . . . because it’s all about information now.”
What’s in It for DE?
Does “smarter” BAS/EMS boost onsite power prospects, then—or work the other way?
Answering the question with building energy audit data, it should surprise no one to hear from Ring that, “It’s almost always the case that there are a lot more savings that can be achieved cost-effectively through conservation and energy efficiency measures,” than by putting in a solar panel array. (Although, he notes incidentally, solar prices have fallen by perhaps as much as 50% since 2009.)
Moreover, he adds, everyone in both the building and energy industries “would always recommend first looking for those opportunities,” and only afterwards—“once you’re confident that you’re operating an energy-efficient building”—would you explore the economics of power generation.
Nevertheless, Ring also cautions that, “The ability of control systems to monitor process trends and analyze data vastly exceeds the capability of their staffs to do anything with that data. That’s kind of the reality we have to deal with.”
Lastly, in all of this smart BAS/EMS transformation, one factor that has not changed is the underlying driver, namely, system payback. As always, any decisions and actions are spurred by utility rates (accompanied by tax breaks and assorted incentives). These steer everything. Without high electric bills, spending on smart buildings isn’t very “smart.”
Currently, even in recent tough times, utility rates somehow stay high enough to juice the industry. Among the factors propping-up kilowatt-hour expenses, cited by several commenters, are the decommissioning and replacement of coal-fired power plants and utilities under pressure to meet renewable energy portfolio standards.
In order to fund the latter—solar and wind projects—the nation also requires an enormously capital-intensive smart grid. Think bigger electric bills for the foreseeable future. And the network of smart meters, grids, buildings, and number-crunching clouds will keep advancing.
Author’s bio: Writer David Engle specializes in energy-related topics.