Is it the right time to adopt new energy management systems for buildings?

Is it the right time to adopt new energy management systems for buildings?
Today companies spend much money on utility, and among all the equipment running on electricity, those related to lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) are the biggest energy consumers. How to cut down their energy use to save money has been a trending topic for companies.
 
With the evolution of technologies, the methodologies employed to save energy has evolved, from using energy-efficient appliaces, to using automated devices and employing artificial intelligence (AI).
 
For starters, companies may install energy-efficient devices like LED lights or other appliances that have green energy labels. More varied use in offices like open-office designs and mixed-purpose spaces may also help.
 
Nest Thermostat is a good example, which can assist in keeping a comfortable indoor environment while saving energy. The device’s sensors detect temperature, humidity, lighting and activity levels, and after taking all the data into consideration, it provides the optimal temperature setting. It also learns users’ temperature setting patterns throughout the day and remembers them, so that it can automate temperature adjustments on behalf of users in the future.
 
To increase energy efficiency in lightings, the intelligent lighting control and management system (LCMS) can be deployed in up to 90% of public and commercial spaces. The system can be connected to various kinds of lighting including LED lights, mercury-vapor lamp, high-intensity discharge lamp placed in garages, gyms, storage facilities, etc. As all the lights are connected to the LCMS, they can be controlled manually or automatically based on time, area or user demand. The lights will be monitored to check their efficiency adjusted individually.
 
In the U.S., there are over 30 companies specializing in providing Internet of Things (IoT) solutions that help companies cut down energy use. Among them are IoT device makers and solution companies that serve utility firms as well as end users. Adopting energy-saving methods can decrease energy consumption between 20-50%, according to most solution providers.

Devices to enable automation


To save energy consumption, many offices adopt methods that require little changes in building infrastructure like installing lightweight data centers and plug-in equipment so that may be switched on and off and adjusted automatically.
 
To fully take advantage of the IoT technology, devices like sensors, relay switch and gateways will need to be installed. The sensors’ function is to detect temperatures indoors, and when they reach a certain level, the HVAC may be switched on or adjusted automatically. “The heating system will be autonomous based on the temperature of the rooms and the days or hours, or presence of people. No more place will be unnecessarily heated,” said Coralie Feillault, communication officer of NodOn, an IoT company that provides smart solutions for homes and businesses.
Coralie Feillault,
PR Officer, NodOn

 
There are also motion and occupancy sensors that detect presence of people. Using these sensors, the system will know when people have left a room or building, and turn off lights, air conditioners, etc. automatically.
 
Besides sensors, relay switches are needed. They are installed to turn traditional lights, heaters and air conditioners into smart ones, to turn them on and off automatically. Gateways are also required, in order to establish communication between sensors and relay switches. In addition, gateways serve as controllers and pass commands to turn on or off, up or down HVAC and lighting devices.
 
While lighting and HVAC devices may be adjusted in accordance with sensors, they may also be adjusted based on set schedules. For example, the lights and HVAC systems can be automated to switch on at 9 am when staff arrive at the office, and switch off at 8 pm when everyone gets off work. Gateways are needed for the scheduling.
 
“Using machines to automate lighting and HVAC can be very convenient, because quite often people just forget to switch the devices off when they leave. It just happens,” said Yung-Chieh Hung, technical manager of digital transformation at the Institute for Information Industry, a division of the Economics Ministry in Taiwan.
 
Lighting and HVAC may be adjusted based not only on set schedules and presence of people, but also outside weather. “Daylight harvesting – the process of not using overhead lights based on daylight coming in from windows – may be integrated with automated shades in in different areas of a building.

Leverage AI to make best decisions


To take one step further in utilizing the IoT technology, some companies are using the cloud to tap into the power of AI. Smart devices alone aren’t enough; facility managers need the visibility behind them. A platform with customizable controls and automated insights is needed to ensure consistent savings.
 
Through an IoT platform, all the data collected at different gateways will be passed to the server, where the data is converted into a uniform format. This way, integration among different systems and equipment is accomplished. The data will then be uploaded to the cloud, where big data is formed to conduct analysis. Decisions for optimum device control are generated for the management.
 
“AI and big data come into place in looking at building usage patterns, how do employees move throughout a space and at what times of day as well as current usage to find ways to optimize the usage throughout the day,” said Adam Justice, founder and CEO of ConnectSense, an IoT company that provides sensors and other hardware to help companies save energy use. We may utilize big data and AI to more intelligently layout and design the building and flow of traffic, Justice added.

 
James McPhail,
CEO, Zen Ecosystems
Sophisticated granular monitoring and sensing can be done in the cloud and energy use of different devices can be quantified and tracked closely. “Only through a quantitative feedback mechanism can energy efficiency be achieved in a methodical and productive way,” said James McPhail, CEO of Zen Ecosystems, which offers a cloud platform to help companies control thermostats throughout their offices and manage energy costs.
 
Integration is key as devices and appliances made by different brands can coexist in the same building. “With the latest innovations in cloud-based energy management platforms, a wide range of devices and appliances can be connected and controlled. Since technology capabilities now allow countless integrations, decision-makers should focus on top-priority devices - those that use the most energy on a regular basis,” McPhail pointed out.

Comparison with similar buildings


What AI does in this energy-saving field is that it can compare energy consumption among similar buildings, perform some number crunching to come up with the average figure and provide optimal usage recommendations to end users. For example, AI can come up with a “reasonable value” for an air conditioner’s energy consumption. When the consumption level continuously exceeds the value, the management will be notified.
 
Sometimes an appliance consumes exceedingly high energy because it needs to be replaced. In that case, the platform that AI resides in may also connect users to appliance stores that provide energy-efficient products. This applies to a number of devices and appliances other than air conditioners. In addition, the AI can detect user habits and recommend how to use electric devices or appliances more effectively.

“AI should be at the heart of any energy efficiency technology implementation. AI is much better at monitoring and analysis of large datasets and can identify areas for improvement.” said Mark Chung, co-founder and CEO of Verdigris, a company that installs IoT meters inside buildings to measure utility consumption of individual devices to detect any unusual use patterns.  
Mark Chung,
CEO, Verdigris


There is far too much data and variation for humans to develop meaningful best practice implementation for energy efficiency that works universally. In the future, smart technologies can offer predictive analytics that can identify the most wasteful or malfunctioning equipment that could be wasting electricity, Chung added.
 
U.S.-based intelligence provider FirstFuel is one of the companies that use a cloud platform to help utility firms, governments and commercial buildings cut down energy use. The company’s intelligent analytics platform will analyze total energy consumption in a building, compare it with those of similar buildings and make energy conservation recommendations.

Challenges and future outlook

 
Despite all its benefits, it will take some time before smart technologies are universally adopted by businesses. Cost is major consideration and businesses are unsure about the return on investment (ROI) of using these technologies. Commercial buildings have large spaces and have more floors, which will add complexity and incur greater costs if smart solutions are to be deployed. Retrofitting an existing building to put in smart technologies is especially more difficult. Given the high costs, building owners will likely to re-consider whether all the time and effort spent will give them a reasonable ROI.
 
However, the ROI is not easy to calculate. For commercial buildings, a wide range of factors determine how much energy smart technology devices can actually save. Square footage, number of connected devices, prior energy use and more, all have an impact on saving results, Hung from the Institute for Information Industry said.
 
Another challenge is that the market is not saavy about smart technologies which require some sophistication to deploy. As such, successful use cases are limited today. However, the technology could be more accessible over time when its ease of use improves.

Measures to accelerate adoption

 
Ultimately market learning takes time. Regulators can help by subsidizing or mandating adoption to educate the market. Another way that can make smart energy solutions more affordable is allowing users to make payment through monthly installment.
 
More and more building managers are realizing the benefits of a whole-system approach to saving energy. “Office buildings are starting to create an IoT arsenal for collecting data and reducing energy consumption with devices, creating an ecosystem of individual smart energy management components.” Zen Ecosystems’ McPhail noted.
 
Ideally in the future, a fully automated control systems will allow for both energy conservation and redirection of energy to the grid system for later reuse.
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