Navigant Research Blog

Resilience: Coming Soon to a Building Near You

— August 14, 2013

Resilience – defined as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” – has long been a primary goal of the smart grid.  However, outside of data centers, which have always been optimized for physical and network resilience, this attribute rarely makes the priority list for commercial building design and operations.  A recent report by Sandia National Labs explores the drivers and obstacles for the development of resilient buildings.

One of the report’s key findings is the lack of a consensus definition of a “resilient building,” which is not surprising.  If a building is in an earthquake zone, a resilient building is one that doesn’t collapse during a major earthquake.  In addition to structural integrity, resiliency of fire and other life safety systems are also of key importance – and well understood.  But for this discussion, a resilient building is one that is designed, constructed, and operated to allow ongoing operation in the face of significant external disruptions, such as natural disasters, external system failures (i.e., power grid outages, transportation systems shutdowns, etc.), or similar threats.

Although the Sandia report was drafted before Tropical Cyclone Sandy devastated the U.S. East Coast, Sandy’s impact, especially in New York City, has focused some minds on the concept of resilient buildings.  Building designs that integrate backup power sources, tolerate flooding up to a certain level, and support other forms of infrastructure redundancy should have obvious appeal to occupiers, owners, insurers, and other stakeholders.  However, the Sandia researchers found that, as with other optional building improvements such as energy efficiency upgrades, the motivation for implementing resiliency techniques depends on demonstrably clear economic advantages.  It always comes down to the business case.

Efficiency = Resiliency

One aspect the Sandia report does not address, however, is how many emerging smart building technologies, with business cases justified by operation and/or energy savings (or regulations), might contribute resilience in commercial buildings.  Energy storage technologies, studied in the recent Navigant Research report Energy Storage in Commercial Buildings are likely key to building resilience, especially when combined with in-building microgrid technologies (discussed in another recent report, Direct Current Distribution Networks).  It stands to reason that a more efficient building, including basic envelope efficiency, HVAC and lighting systems, and potentially integrating generation sources such as solar or combined heat and power, has the potential to be more resilient in the face of external disasters.

Will resilience be a major focus for smart commercial building construction and retrofit?  Given how much time and regulatory pressure it has taken for energy efficiency to be taken seriously, I would not hold my breath, but including resiliency benefits in the business case for other smart technologies could be a savvy move.


On Energy and Buildings, Conventional Wisdom is Fleeting

— May 16, 2013

As the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere reaches a level not seen in human history, it’s worth considering how much the conventional wisdom surrounding energy has changed in the last 5 years.  In 2008, domestic fossil fuel production (other than coal) was considered to be in permanent decline, with local debates on where to site natural gas import terminals.  Coal-based electricity generation was assumed to be as irreplaceable as it was undesirable.  Increasing energy costs and volatility were unavoidable, while renewable generation cost parity appeared within reach as the bar moved lower.  A nuclear power renaissance was effectively promoted as the only carbonless solution with the potential capacity to displace coal.  The dawn of transportation electrification seemed upon us, while the smart grid took a laser focus on peak load reduction.

Much has changed since then.  Conventional wisdom has caught up with the gas industry experts (including some of my Navigant colleagues), who foresaw how the shale gas boom would reshape the North American energy landscape.  With domestic oil and gas production up sharply, costs are expected to stabilize and volatility decrease.  Planned natural gas import terminals, while still locally controversial, are morphing into export terminalsNatural gas generation is rapidly displacing coal, leading to significant carbon emissions reductions, though the enabling fracking technologies trigger new concerns.  Even as the cost parity goalposts keep moving, the cost of renewables continues to decline.  The Fukushima accident stalled a North American nuclear renaissance while driving Germany and Japan, at least notionally, to nuclear exits.  Home refueling of natural gas vehicles could replace electric vehicle charging stations in consumer imaginations.  Meanwhile, long-haul trucks, fleet vehicles, and even locomotives are adopting natural gas.  And the smart grid is becoming more important as a means of power resiliency in the face of hurricanes and superstorms than as a vehicle for peak load reduction.

Cheap Gas, Smart Buildings

This all came to mind recently when I moderated a panel discussion titled “The Future Direction of Energy in North America and the Impact on the Intelligent Buildings Sector” at CABA’s Intelligent Buildings Forum in Toronto.  CABA is the Continental Automated Buildings Association, a 25-year old organization dedicated to the advancement of intelligent home and intelligent building technologies (I am privileged to serve on CABA’s board).  The panel participants represented the perspectives of commercial property owner/managers (Cadillac Fairview), utilities (Ontario Power Authority), suppliers (Siemens), and technology researchers (CanmetENERGY).

So what do the major shifts of the last half-decade mean for intelligent buildings?  The panelists agreed that demand for improved energy efficiency remains strong, even if all the incentives for deploying the technology to deliver such efficiency are not always aligned.  Local codes and mandates may be drivers, but even lower-cost energy is not free energy.  Building-to-grid technologies and distributed generation may become even more important if natural gas enables local generation, which is becoming an intriguing option for the storm-ravaged Northeast United States.  Most importantly, all agreed that “cheap, abundant” natural gas is unlikely to spur new interest in dumb buildings.


Wireless Building Controls Standards Emerge

— April 17, 2013

Wireless communications for building control systems have been available for more than a decade.  However, these product lines – focused on specific single building system (lighting, HVAC, etc.) – have achieved acceptance only in small market niches.  Wireless controls have always had what seemed to be a strong business case: reduced labor costs thanks to less wire pulling, more flexible sensor placement, and the ability to adapt as building interiors are rearranged over time.  In practice, however, these benefits were offset by the initial costs, lack of training, and often poor performance characteristics of the proprietary, non-standard market offerings.

This is changing rapidly, as two particular wireless controls standards have emerged with strong multivendor support:  ZigBee Commercial Building Automation (ZBA) and EnOcean.   Our recently published report, Wireless Control Systems for Smart Buildings, forecasts that these two standards will battle each other for share in a growing global market.   Interestingly, these two successful standards evolved from very different approaches.

Wireless Building Controls Penetration Rate by Region, World Markets: 2012-2020


The ZigBee Alliance was founded in 2002 to develop an open standard for wireless sensor networking, with commercial building automation a key application target.  While market attention has focused on an Internet Protocol (IP) version of ZigBee for Smart Energy (i.e., smart meter and home area networks), other groups quietly, steadily, and quite slowly, inched toward a ZigBee implementation for commercial building control systems.  It took more than 10 years and several detours, but the working groups ultimately adapted the popular BACnet building control protocols to the proven ZigBee PRO networking stack to deliver a mesh networking solution that most industry participants are now embracing, including Trane and Schneider Electric, among many others.  Ultimately, a long, multi-vendor effort has produced an acceptable general wireless standard that spans lighting, HVAC, fire & safety, and security & access building controls systems.

The EnOcean specifications have emerged by a completely different path that started from a proprietary single-vendor product set targeting a specific problem; it subsequently opened up to multiple vendors and a broader solution space.  EnOcean GmbH was spun out in 2001 from Siemens AG as a provider of self-powered wireless lighting controls, whereby the energy inherent in physically toggling a light switch is harvested to power wireless communications to the lighting system.  This avoids the battery maintenance problem associated with battery-based wireless switches.   EnOcean the company initiated the creation of an industry alliance, and though the technology has been accepted as a ISO/IEC standard, the underlying technology remains essentially sourced by a single vendor.  Yet, the EnOcean solution has garnered broad industry support and customer acceptance, particularly in Europe – enough to cause the ZigBee Alliance to develop a similar energy harvesting specification.

Despite the very different pedigrees, the stage is set for a battle between ZigBee, EnOcean, and proprietary solutions.  Other standards and semi-standards including Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, and LonWorks will also look for mindshare, but we see these are secondary to the larger battle between ZigBee and EnOcean.  This competition should benefit the consumers of these technologies: building controls vendors, integrators, installers, and ultimately, building occupants.


LED Revolution Rises in the West

— March 17, 2013

The market for light-emitting diodes (LEDs) has reached the turning point from “promising technology” to “practical mainstream solution.”  The replacement of 125-plus years of vacuum tube lighting by LEDs seems as inevitable as the transition from TV tubes to flat screen LED monitors, though it won’t happen nearly as quickly.  But even as we witness this shift, I wonder if we really perceive the revolution taking place.

That revolution was evident at last month’s Strategies in Light conference, in Santa Clara, which focused on LED  technologies and, more specifically, LEDs applied to lighting applications.  Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of the visible LED, the program included an awards ceremony honoring industry pioneers Nick Holonyak Jr., M. George Craford, Roland Haitz, and Shuji Nakamura.  It was a rare window into history.

The conference also demonstrated that LED lighting R&D activity is overwhelmingly focused on achieving some degree of parity with conventional lighting in terms of light quality and cost, while still delivering on the energy efficiency and long life-cycle potential of LEDs.  Just as anyone seeking “plain white paint” is confronted by thousands of options at their neighborhood paint shop, “white light” is far from a neutral, standard attribute for lighting.  How a given light source’s color temperature maps against the standard Planck curve is just the beginning of a light quality assessment.  The facts are that LED lighting can be made very efficient, have good light quality, last a very long time, and be cost-effective.  But it’s exceedingly rare that all four of these goals are met simultaneously in a given application. Hence there’s much work to be done, justifying the focus on achieving parity and conventional lamp replacement.

Beyond Tubes

Beyond the focus on parity and replacement, however, are opportunities that are potentially much more transformative. Although the transistor radios of my youth seemed a major innovation compared with the vacuum-tube radios of a decade earlier, the real power of transistors came in the form of integrated circuits that unleashed a much larger information and communications revolution.  In a presentation titled “The Next Evolution of Lighting,” Brad Koerner, director of experience design at Philips Lighting, showed how LEDs are ushering in a new paradigm for lighting design, controllability, and occupant experience.  LED lighting form factors that mimic fluorescent tubes might make sense for today’s lamp replacement market, but they’ll probably look silly in retrospect when lighting is integrated into the very surfaces of next-generation buildings.  Today’s lighting programmability essentially means on, off, or dim – but what happens when lighting color temperature is also programmable, allowing sunlight’s subtle differences by time of day, season, or geographic location to be carried indoors to our work and living spaces?

We are only at the cusp of these revolutions today.  In the meantime, all those concerned with smart buildings, from architects to facility managers, should balance their healthy skepticism with a dreamer’s wonder at what may soon be.


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