Navigant Research Blog

Building on Big Data

— November 10, 2014

Advanced methods of interpreting large volumes of data have brought innovations in areas such as healthcare/pharmaceuticals, meteorology, marketing, e-commerce, government services, national security, and financial services.  Despite success in other areas, though, big data is only beginning to have an impact on building automation and energy efficiency.  In a 2013 blog, my colleague Bob Gohn discussed big data in the context of buildings.  In this blog, I’ll take a look at some of the solutions emerging in this area and how the buildings industry will be affected.

Continual Correction

Currently, the most common use for big data in buildings is fault detection and predictive maintenance.  Advances in sensor technology have enabled unprecedented views into the status and functionality of building systems such as heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC).  Sensors are capable of regularly measuring every aspect of the system’s performance by analyzing the data to identify equipment that needs to be replaced or may be about to fail.  Bringing technicians onsite to service equipment can be a major expense for building owners.  This type of data analytics allows a diagnosis to be made before the technician arrives, while also providing information on replacement parts and other relevant items. Data analytics solutions can also build a list of the known problems in a building and derive each piece of equipment’s usage and cost, enabling a quantitative return on investment (ROI)-based assessment of which upgrade or investment should be implemented first.

As building automation and data analytics continue to advance, new applications within the buildings industry are emerging.  Advanced building energy management systems (BEMSs) harness large quantities of data to provide a visualization of the overall energy consumption of a building or portfolio of buildings.  These systems also have the ability to leverage historical data to provide recommendations for how to best reduce consumption.  Next-generation BEMSs have the capability to adjust building system parameters automatically to maximize occupant comfort and energy efficiency.  One example of this type of advanced system is SHIFT Energy’s Intelligent Live Recommissioning (ILR) solution, which provides ongoing re-adjustments.  Another cutting-edge solution is offered by Ecorithm, whose program also includes richly detailed graphics to visualize processed data across a building’s floor plan, identifying areas of waste and recommending corrections.

Designed with Data

Big data is also playing an increasingly important role in the design of resource efficient buildings.  Building information modeling (BIM) programs allow architects to analyze key performance metrics such as natural ventilation, daylighting, solar heat gain, overall energy usage, and even how people will likely interact with spaces.  These programs utilize vast amounts of data from existing buildings to visualize how a conceptual building may perform.  Such analysis can speed the construction of new buildings by leveraging the data-rich plans from previous projects, modified to fit the specific characteristics of the new site.  This also allows designers to cut costs by eliminating the duplication of work from past projects.  Reducing the time and cost required to construct new buildings is an essential factor in addressing rapidly growing urban populations that lack sustainable buildings and infrastructure.

Despite these achievements, the buildings industry is not yet exploiting available data to the extent that other industries are.  Looking forward, advances in building design, construction, and management can leverage big data and advanced analytics to reduce costs and improve efficiency.  As buildings and cities become increasingly automated and digitalized, data analytics will play a growing role in energy efficient buildings.

 

The NFL Tackles Energy Efficiency

— October 12, 2014

On September 14, the San Francisco 49ers played the first game at their new home, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.  Though it has its detractors, the new stadium is one of the most energy efficient sports venues in the world.  The 49ers partnered with clean energy leader NRG Energy to install a 375 kW solar power system across the stadium.  The installation will generate enough electricity annually to offset the power consumed during all home games.

In addition to onsite power generation, the stadium has installed low-flow water fixtures in all bathrooms, and water is reclaimed whenever possible to be reused for irrigation and other purposes.  A 27,000 SF green roof provides extra insulation and reduces the demand for heating and cooling.  Whenever possible, the builders used recycled and reclaimed materials during construction.  All of these features have led to Levi’s Stadium being the first U.S. professional football stadium to achieve LEED Gold certification.

Efficient Competition

Unfortunately for San Francisco fans, the 49ers lost their opening home game to another team that has made a commitment to sustainability.  The Chicago Bears completed a full renovation of the iconic Soldier Field in 2003, making it a goal to improve performance and efficiency while also reducing the stadium’s carbon footprint.  These efforts also earned recognition from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in the form of a LEED – Existing Building Certification.  Although Soldier Field does not have any onsite renewable power generation, it does boast many energy saving features, such as LED lighting with a networked control system and a green roof on the parking structure.

Given their very high energy usage, many other stadiums around the world have implemented efficiency features.  The most popular are efficient lighting/control systems and low-flow water fixtures.  More capital-intensive projects to install renewable power generation on stadiums are also becoming common.  Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles, has the ability to generate 3,000 kW of renewable electricity onsite, the most of any stadium.  Eleven thousand solar panels have been installed, along with 14 eye-catching vertical axis wind turbines, which are intended to be a visual representation of the team’s commitment to sustainability.  FedEx Field outside of Washington, D.C. and MetLife Stadium in New Jersey boast 2,000 kW and 314 kW of generating capacity, respectively.

Power Houses

Two other highly efficient stadiums belong to two of the league’s top teams.  The Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots are both powerhouse teams, likely to meet in this season’s Super Bowl in Arizona.  Seattle’s CenturyLink Field produces 830,000 kWh annually with an onsite solar installation.  The Patriots’ home field in Foxborough, Massachusetts also features solar power generation, a 525 kW array installed by NRG Energy.  One of the distinctive features of this stadium is an integrated building energy management system that optimizes HVAC, lighting, and other systems.

Sports teams have a unique ability to influence their home communities in positive ways; their visible commitments to sustainability tend to have ripple effects throughout the community.  Energy efficient stadiums support local green businesses that are able to put their expertise on display in large-scale projects.  Saving energy and money and helping fans understand the impacts of their actions is a win for everyone.

 

Green Roofs Sprouting Up Globally

— September 18, 2014

Many cities have mandated increased energy efficiency in buildings and, in some cases, net zero energy use by buildings.  A variety of solutions is needed to meet these goals; some are cutting-edge digital technologies, while others have been around for thousands of years.  Green roofs, one of the oldest energy-saving technologies, are becoming increasingly popular and having an impact on sustainability efforts.

Modern green roofs employ advanced design and materials to provide residents with rooftop oases while saving energy.  There are two primary types of green roofs: extensive green roofs, which generally have 2 to 12 cm of planting medium and are designed to be virtually self-sustaining; and intensive green roofs, which are far more complex and act as rooftop parks and gardens.  Intensive green roofs have soil depths of more than 12 cm and can include shrubs, small trees, and conventional lawns.  Given the amount of materials and the additional weight required for intensive designs, they are not suitable for all roofs.  Companies such as Illinois-based TectaGreen have been installing various types of green roofs on buildings across the United States for many years.

Cool Under Cover

Green roofs have been used for centuries to provide insulation and protect roofing materials, and they provide many benefits to building owners, occupants, and the general public.  Rooftop vegetation offers several public benefits; it improves urban air quality, manages stormwater runoff, and helps moderate the urban heat-island effect.  But it’s the private benefits for building owners that are primarily driving the market for green roofs.

The most direct benefit is reducing the amount of energy required to heat and cool buildings.  Several studies have shown that installing a green roof reduces summer cooling needs and winter heat loss by as much as 26%.  Green roofing can also extend the lifespan of a roof by protecting the waterproofing membrane from ultraviolet radiation and physical damage.  Other benefits include noise reduction, the reduction of electromagnetic radiation, and compliance with building codes such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

Small but Growing

While costs for green roofs have dropped in recent years, there is an ongoing debate over their cost-effectiveness and payback period.  Installed costs of green roof systems can vary dramatically; extensive roofs (shallower) generally cost from $10 to $23 per square foot to install.  Intensive roofs can cost anywhere from $25 to $220 per square foot and may require regular maintenance.  Some argue that at those prices, green roofs cannot pay back their installation costs.  But it can also be argued that the most important benefits are those that are not easily quantified.  What’s more, compared to other, more intrusive energy efficiency measures, green roofs are relatively inexpensive.

Despite the cost, green roofs continue to be installed around the world.  Navigant Research’s recent Zero Energy Buildings report discusses the efforts underway to lower building energy consumption; green roofs represent a small but growing part of that effort.  In addition to energy efficiency, green roofs are part of a growing movement to improve the sustainability of urban environments and reconnect residents with the natural environment that their cities have largely erased.  They are sure to grow in popularity over the coming years.

 

Non-Profit Solar Offers Hope for Developing Economies

— July 31, 2014

At the Lungra Health Clinic in the remote western region of Nepal, overhead lights now illuminate the operating room for the first time.  Midwives at this facility are grateful that they no longer have to use flashlights held between their teeth to deliver babies.  The recent installation of an off-grid solar PV system allows the healthcare providers at the Lungra Health Clinic to work through the night and store lifesaving medications and vaccines.

During the coming decades, developing countries will represent some of the most lucrative markets for solar PV.  Many of the largest global solar companies are devoting significant resources to understanding and developing products for these markets.  Moreover, the people who live in these areas will benefit from solar development more than developed world consumers.  In developing countries, solar power is often not a replacement for conventional grid power; it’s the only source of electricity available.

Some of the same factors that make these areas attractive for solar development, though, also create obstacles.  The lack of basic infrastructure, absence of established electricity markets, and spotty government policies to incentivize development make doing business in these areas extremely difficult.

Seeding Solar

A possible path forward to address many of these challenges has emerged from a global solar leader, SunEdison, which has helped launch a non-profit organization called SunFarmer.  The mission of this organization is “to make solar power accessible to the 300,000 hospitals worldwide that lack access to reliable energy.”  Using seed money from SunEdison combined with private donations, SunFarmer has already installed off-grid PV systems at six health clinics in Nepal, including in Lungra.

SunFarmer covers the upfront cost of installing the system and collects rental payments from the local organizations over a set period – until the initial investment has been paid off.  All rental payments are then recycled to install more systems where they are needed most.  SunFarmer uses only high quality components and provides operations, maintenance, and monitoring services throughout the life of the project.

While the obvious benefits of providing clean and reliable electricity to those who need it most is SunFarmer’s primary motivation, these ventures deliver additional value to the parent organization, SunEdison.  Establishing viable businesses in a mountainous and poor country like Nepal requires trial and error.  The SunFarmer program will provide valuable insights and experience for SunEdison with minimal risk as it attempts to expand its international footprint into more challenging, emerging markets.

Extreme Renewables

Once developers have established a viable solar business model, local stakeholders – including electricity users, grid operators, policymakers, and commercial lenders, all of whom are essential to a truly sustainable market – will enter the market.  The risk of lending to the first solar project or signing the first power purchase/lease agreement is much higher than in subsequent deals.  SunFarmer will work with local residents to educate them on the technical aspects of distributed solar generation.  The ultimate goal is to give locally owned solar companies firsthand technical experience with installing and maintaining remote power systems.

It will be interesting to see if this type of program is replicated by other large renewable energy providers looking to establish a presence in emerging markets.  Pioneering non-profit renewable energy ventures can create goodwill for the parent company, as well as an opportunity to put its technical expertise and business model to the test in the most challenging environments.

 

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