Navigant Research Blog

Cleantech in the Era of Big Data

— April 1, 2014

The concept of big data – the notion that we are overwhelmed by a flood of digital information like nothing we’ve seen before – holds both promise and peril.  The allure is centered on the benefits that big data will bring, in areas from medicine to traffic to agriculture.  These benefits will translate into profits for companies that manage, transmit, and store all that data.

Then there’s the other side: that big data will lead to privacy intrusions, lack of freedom, and, from a very practical standpoint, yet another headache for executives and IT managers.  We have covered this topic in the past (see a great description of how automated demand response firms are focusing on data analytics or click here to read more about framing the problem for building operators) and our recent webinar, “Innovations in Smart Building Data Analytics,” also presented some excellent examples of how industry leaders are using data analytics for their customers.

The Three Vs

Many definitions of big data are available, but the most compelling framework was created by Doug Laney in a 2001 research report.  This description focuses on three prime elements: volume, velocity, and variety.  Volume refers to the bigness of the data – there are more sensors and signals than ever before, pumping out data on everything from location to temperature to transactions.  Velocity addresses the speed that the data is being created, from subsecond phasor measurement unit (PMU) data describing the power quality on the grid to the rate at which Facebook is gathering our likes.  (It should be noted that one overlooked aspect of velocity is not just speed, but also direction.  Data is streaming not just from our devices, but also to servers, corporate analytics processors, and back to customers, all over the world.)  Lastly, there is variety, which is the real game-changer.  Data has never been unitary, and the diversity of data forms, standards, protocols, and utilities is growing by the day.  While often presented as separate concepts, these three elements are intrinsically linked.  I’d like to present the three Vs as a nested hierarchy (see below).

The 3 Elements of Big Data

 

(Source: Navigant Research)

Data volume gets most of the attention (hence the name big data, not fast data or diverse data) and velocity gets the communication and IT folks excited.  But it’s the variety of the data, and the variety of the velocity and the variety of the volume, that makes the big data interesting.  It’s not just that data is big or fast; it’s the diversity of speeds and directions that data travels to its many users.

Big Data, Big Challenges

For example, utilities used to report monthly electricity usage; now customers can see how much power they use every 15 minutes – that’s three orders of magnitude difference!  In addition, utility data is now being served to customers, local grid operators, energy efficiency firms, and facility managers.  Lastly, it is the complexity of the variety (the variety of the variety) that creates challenges, as well.  For example, in the developing world, buildings are at many different levels of IT sophistication and electrical grids have to integrate old equipment and management processes along with new state-of-the-art high-tech factories that need highly reliable power.

So how is big data actually affecting cleantech markets and technologies?  Going forward, in our research and our blogs, we will touch on how big data is changing cities and how it’s being integrated into regular business practices.  We will explore how traditional firms are coming up to speed, while startups are using it to leapfrog their competition.  We’ll  also examine how big data is providing new opportunities and challenges to the cleantech markets and how those markets are responding.

 

The Future of Buildings Will Be Printed in 3D

— March 11, 2014

There is something mesmerizing about watching a 3D printer work.  Whether it’s printing in plasticsandmetalsugar, or chocolate, it is captivating to see layer after layer be laid down to create simple or sublime forms.  3D-printed (also known as additive) materials have been recognized as having novel material, physical, and even electric properties.  Impossible shapes have been created that could enable an expansion in how materials can be conceived and used.  But what does additive manufacturing mean for buildings?  The ultimate application is easy to conceive: printing buildings, molecule by molecule, creating homes with landing pads for flying cars, and a HAL-9000 built into the walls.  But that is the Future (with a capital F).  In the near future, 3D printing will change the ways buildings are maintained and built.

The first application of 3D printing will address a very old-school problem: replacing parts in aging equipment.  Buildings are incredible for their durability.  This is also true for the equipment inside buildings.  At the Hotel Boulderado in Boulder, Colorado, the city where Navigant Research is headquartered, the original elevator is still running after 100 years.  With good maintenance, some systems will last for decades beyond their intended service life.  Keeping legacy systems in place lowers capital expenses for building owners.  But it’s not always easy to replace old parts.  In some cases, the replacement parts are no longer available, either because the manufacturer has gone out of business or has simply stopped making them.  In other cases, the transport costs for replacing parts can be prohibitive.  3D printing can solve that by creating custom parts made with extreme precision.  With the portability of 3D printing, it could even be possible to send the design specs for the part to the location where they are needed and print the part onsite.

Print Me a House

Constructing buildings using 3D-printed materials is still in the visionary phase of development.  DUS Architects has launched an ambitious project to print a traditional Dutch Canal House out of polypropylene.  In a very public display, a large silver box will print walls and other structures onsite, to be assembled into the traditional canal house form over the next few years.  Starting with the façade, the buildings will be printed and assembled out of plastic, building voids into the walls for support and insulation.  This is a public demonstration of an innovative approach.  One can envision printing building materials onsite using local materials, curbing transportation costs, saving energy, and reducing carbon emissions, not to mention vastly lowering the material waste that is a part of the building manufacturing industry.  In the next few decades, we can look forward to 3D printers getting bigger and cheaper, enabling 3D-printed material to be merged with traditional approaches.  The economics of 3D printing materials for buildings are not clear, and could be a major limiting factor in most settings.  In the meantime, if you find yourself in Amsterdam, you can buy a ticket to see a house being printed.  The architects and partners have made the building site (and print shop) open to the public for a small fee.

 

Battle of the Buildings Addresses Split Energy Incentives

— February 18, 2014

Among the hottest topics in city-scale energy is the use of building energy benchmarking and disclosure data.  As explained in this blog by my colleague, Eric Bloom, benchmarking is the process of comparing a building’s energy use to others in its sector or class.  Disclosure refers to the reporting of energy data when a building is sold or refinanced.  Many of these practices fall under smart cities programs.  The cities, states, and, in the case of Australia, the country employing these metrics aim to make visible the energy being used by commercial buildings in order to provide carrots and sticks to encourage building owners and operators to reduce energy demand.  The adoption of these programs is now global (see buildingrating.org for the breadth of these programs).  This movement could enable a process of market transformation where energy efficiency and sustainability become the norm, not the exception.  The Institute of Market Transformation has been a leader in promoting and tracking these programs, identifying the additional benefits to cities, including jobs and greenhouse gas reductions.

(Source: Buildingrating.org)

In the United States, many of the city-based benchmarking programs efforts are leveraging the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager program, administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Using ENERGY STAR has helped cities with the heavy lifting of capturing and standardizing building energy data.  Using ENERGY STAR has also helped open the conversation around improved building energy performance.  The ENERGY STAR site spotlights individual buildings that are making significant steps toward improved efficiency.  We may not see the realized savings of benchmarking programs for a few years, given the challenges of measuring and attributing energy savings.  But a series of case studies reported by the Institute for Market Transformation shows that an average of 7% energy savings have been demonstrated in cities across the country.

ENERGY STAR is also running its fourth annual Battle of the Buildings competition, pitting buildings against each other to achieve the greatest percentage-based reduction in energy use intensity over the course of the year.  This year’s competition (drawing on 2013 data) includes commercial tenants.  This is a novel change, addressing the classic split incentive issue.  The split incentive refers to the nature of the tenant-owner relationship; in most cases, the building owner pays for the capital upgrades to a building, while the tenant reaps the benefit in smaller electric bills.  A different, but similarly challenging, situation arises when tenants’ leases are not tied to energy use in any way, potentially negating the building’s energy efficiency improvements through naive behavior changes, like leaving the lights on over the weekend, or installing a server near a thermostat.  One approach is a green lease, under which the tenant and owner are aligned on energy savings goals, with financial incentives built in.  Of course, the tenant can pursue energy savings individually and try to win the ENERGY STAR tenant competition.  The results of the competition will be released in April.  Stay tuned for an assessment of the results.

 

The Smart Home and the Invisible Hand

— February 7, 2014

So many activities in our lives have shifted from a specific location to any location, and smartphones are largely responsible.  Phones used to be a fixture in a home, now they are an appendage.  Turning on lights, heat, and the stereo used to mean that one had to walk over to that appliance and interact with it.  Now, of course, the line “there’s an app for that” has entered the home, with more and more smart devices being accessible through branded apps.

Apps that can control lights, stereos, door locks, home security cameras, and even individual outlets have been reported on in this blog before.  Together, they embody the emerging Internet of Things.  The biggest play is in energy management for consumers, which makes energy conservation and comfort staging (i.e., the preparation of a home’s temperature, lighting, etc. in time for its inhabitants’ arrival) easy.  Navigant Research’s recent report, Home Energy Management, provides an informed look at trends in this growing market and the challenges it faces.

Enough Already

There are two main challenges.  First is the wild west of wireless communication standards.  From Wi-Fi to ZigBee and Z-Wave, there is no uniform standard or consortia of participants zeroing in on one protocol or pathway.  (This is unlike the automotive industry, which has recently embraced the Android OS for the Open Automotive Alliance by leading car manufacturers, including GM and Honda.)  In the absence of a single or even a consistent set of communication standards, individual appliance makers will have to choose a standard to pursue.

The other challenge is the interface.  Simply put, there are just too many apps.  From the consumer’s perspective, there could be some app fatigue, as users who admittedly embrace these devices have to find each individual app on their phone to control each device.

A few new players have entered the market to address these challenges.  The most notable is Revolv, which has made a physical hub (in an attractive cherry color) that can communicate with seven different wireless signals in 10 different languages.  Accompanying the hub is an app that integrates all of the wireless devices in the home in a single interface.  This makes home automation much easier from the start.  Added features include a proximity indicator that aids in comfort staging and profiles that incorporate a suite of settings for specific occasions (including song choices, lighting, and temperature.)

Now You See It

Other interesting approaches include Insteon, which has essentially set up its own communication standard, and Arrayent, which has created a common platform for the most common communication platforms.  The cable and ISPs have also jumped in the game.  Comcast (Xfinity) and Time Warner are bundling digital home management into triple-play offerings.  It makes sense; they already supply the cable and wireless for the home.

Where is all this home app explosion headed?  First, the consumer demand for smart meters is growing, and a recent Navigant Research survey indicates that consumers view these technologies favorably.  Clearly, the standards must coalesce to make using and installing smart devices easier for the consumer.  The apps will no doubt improve as well, and be corralled in platforms like those provided by pure-play companies, like Arrayent or Revolv, or by Internet/cable/telecom providers.

But the secret sauce may lie in making these devices smarter.  The Nest thermostat purports to learn the patterns of home heating and adjust its settings accordingly.  And with Nest’s owner, Google, purchasing the artificial intelligence and machine-learning firm DeepMind, we can expect those predictions to become more profound, or at least seem that way.  The irony is that the ultimate vision of the smart home lies in making these apps, platforms, standards, and devices all invisible to the consumer.  A truly smart home needs no interface or no manual.  It just performs optimally, according to its users’ current and anticipated needs and behaviors.  So, in the end, for the ultimate smart home, you might say, “There’s no app for that.”

 

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