Navigant Research Blog

Building Sensors Reach Vanishing Point

— September 9, 2014

Sensors play a critical role in building operations, from safety and security to optimizing building system performance.  Building energy management systems, lighting controls, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are slowly incorporating more sensors as their prices fall and their values rise.  Navigant Research’s report Advanced Sensors in Smart Buildings delves into the future of the market for sensors that have built-in processors, networking capability, and the capability to sense more than one phenomenon at a time.  Yet, as design elements in rooms and ceilings, most sensors, like the traditional thermostat, are unappealing appendages with little aesthetic value.  The good news is that the ugly boxes and knobs are shrinking and may disappear from view altogether.

Redwood Systems (acquired last year by networking company Commscope) recently released its third-generation light and motion sensor.  Redwood’s approach is to capture fine-grain occupancy and light levels to deliver lighting precisely to those in offices who need it, when they want it, even with shifting levels of sunlight.  Its lighting solution and accompanying open application programming interface (API) were deployed at the San Francisco headquarters of the software management firm GitHub, then promptly customized to enable the employees to tailor light levels as they see fit.  Redwood’s sensor looks like a small lump on the ceiling and can even be embedded in LED lighting systems themselves.

Sense of Control

The next generation of sensors may not look like anything.  New materials and manufacturing techniques will hide sensors from view, either embedding them in equipment or as objects to paste on surfaces as needed.  Imagine living in a house with smooth walls and ceilings.  No light switches or thermostats in view, other than as decorative objects.  Norwegian company Thinfilm has developed a printable temperature sensor that can function as both a temperature sensor and display for a myriad of applications.  Funded by PARC, Xerox’s research arm, Thinfilm has focused its efforts on thin labels for consumer products (like produce) that have tight temperature and lifetime tolerances.  Thinfilm has also developed advanced ID cards for people that can display names and access levels to different locations.  With data storage and near-field communications capability, Thinfilm’s products have the potential to leap from smart temperature labels to flat room temperature sensors with built-in displays and network communication.

The French company ISORG is also developing a technology using printed sensors.  Its flat light sensors are designed not for occupancy or light level applications, but for applications where light level variances can be used to control equipment, like consumer devices.  And it just received $8.7 million in financing,  bringing new attention to the printed sensor space.  This technology may jump into equipment themselves, like HVAC fans and pumps, where minuscule sensors can enable more granular control and system optimization.

 

Distributed Biogas Gains Footing in Revised Standard

— September 8, 2014

In July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized an extension of the beleaguered Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) to carve out a pathway for renewable biogas to qualify as a cellulosic fuel.  Expanding the scope of the RFS2 beyond liquid transportation markets could have promising implications for the slow-to-emerge cellulosic biofuels market.

Under the RFS2, the EPA requires domestic refiners and importers of transportation fuel to blend increasing volumes of renewable fuels into conventional gasoline and diesel.  The EPA sets the renewable volume obligations for various renewable fuels every year, and regulated entities must demonstrate their compliance by acquiring and retiring renewable identification numbers (RINs), which are publicly traded credits that fluctuate in value.

RINs provide an important financial incentive for the nascent advanced biofuels industry, helping these fuels compete with conventional fuels in the marketplace.  Cellulosic biofuels, a fuel pathway slated to deliver the greatest volume under the rule, have fallen short of expectations every year due to less capacity being built than otherwise predicted.

Expanding Universe

Under the expanded rules, biogas-derived compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), and electricity used to power electric vehicles would qualify for cellulosic RINs.  The final rule is likely to lead to a substantial increase in the production of cellulosic biofuels and create new markets for materials previously regarded as waste.  Opportunities for upgrading biogas to so-called bioCNG or bioLNG – also referred to as biomethane or renewable biogas and already used in fleet applications like garbage trucks and municipal buses – currently show high promise for biogas-to-transportation fuel.

As outlined in the U.S. government’s Biogas Opportunities Roadmap report released last month, biogas has broad applications across a range of diverse industries.  Livestock farms, industrial wastewater treatment facilities, industrial food processing facilities, commercial buildings and institutions, and landfills all produce biogas – either directly or in the form of waste feedstocks that can be converted into biogas.  According to Navigant Research’s Renewable Biogas report, the biogas capture market across the United States is expected to reach more than $4 billion in annual revenue by 2020.

All in all, biogas remains a vastly underutilized resource across the United States when compared to countries like Germany that have used a range of incentives to drive investment, particularly in agricultural applications.

The Curse of Versatility

The challenge for biogas in the United States is that to some it’s a fuel source, to others a waste mitigation strategy, and to others a distributed generation resource.  That makes it difficult to tailor policies that address all potential opportunities.  Adding to the confusion, distributed biogas is often treated by utilities as a strategic resource alongside solar PV and small wind, when in fact it can be utilized in the form of a traditional generator set, a fuel cell, or sometimes concurrently, in combined heat and power configurations.

With these issues in mind, the EPA’s final rule relating to biogas introduced a relatively novel and subtle feature for renewable energy markets: incentive flexibility.  Under the rule, the EPA not only expands the scope of RFS2, but allows the same amount of renewable electricity derived from biogas to give rise to RINs for transportation applications and renewable energy credits for electricity generation, while also qualifying for incentives under state renewable portfolio standards.

This potential for multiple revenue streams unlocks the versatility of biogas as a resource and is likely to attract new investment in the U.S. biogas market.

 

Hidden Meters Provide Visible Savings

— September 8, 2014

A fundamental challenge in commercial building energy management is in understanding where all the electrons are flowing.  Most buildings have a meter that will tell the facility or energy manager how much power is being consumed, and smart meters have contributed greatly to their insight (in some parts of the world, including the United States, groups of buildings share a meter).  And many, such as apartment buildings, have dedicated meters for each tenant.

But to find out how much power is consumed by tenants or equipment, a finer grain view is needed.  It sounds easy to simply deploy more meters or submeters, watch the data flow in, and manage accordingly.  But the barriers to additional submeters, including the cost of deployment and regulatory issues, are limiting their deployment.

Most large heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and other large equipment vendors now sell embedded energy meters with their equipment, making energy management for large systems possible, albeit more expensive.  Today, an alternative is on the rise, in the form of in-line circuit breaker meters.  These devices snap on to the feeder wires of the breakers, recording the power used inside the cable without interfering with it.  All of these companies are touting the fast and easy installation, along with the value of actionable data for facility managers.  These are compelling arguments, especially considering the vast amount of commercial space and the massive plug loads associated with them.

Thinking Inside the Box

A few companies use these innocuous looking grey boxes as the data source to manage energy, displacing the traditional meter and submeter streams and setting up an interesting set of partnerships along the way.   Pennsylvania-based E-Mon sells a line of circuit breaker submeters that capture power and can then communicate via Ethernet (or TIA-485-A) with an energy management system (EMS).  While E-Mon has its own software package, the company recently announced a partnership with Honeywell to use its Attune Energy Dashboard service.   Similarly, Panoramic Power formed a partnership with Lucid, joining its ConnectNow partner group.  Panoramic Power sells only energy services, not the devices themselves, and uses wireless as opposed to wired solutions.

Enertiv both sells devices and EMSs, using Ethernet to communicate with the EMS.  In late July, the New York City-based company received $750,000 in seed funding, indicating the interest in this space.  This interest is rubbing off on newcomer Bractlet.  The Austin-based company, receiver of venture capital and seed funding from Start-Up Chile, sees circuit-level data as a way to validate the upfront costs needed for building retrofits and a way for building and energy managers to measure the value of retrofits.

It’s a compelling business case.  When it comes to retrofits, the first question asked is, “What will this retrofit cost me?” Followed by, “How long will it take to recoup my investment?”  The last question is the most difficult: “How will I know if those savings are actually achieved?” Bractlet, along with its competitors in this emerging space, may have the right approach to answering those questions.

 

Rethinking Water Use in Buildings

— September 8, 2014

Bad news about the water supply keeps rolling in.  In July, a study on the groundwater in the Colorado Basin found that 53 million acre-feet of water (65 billion cubic meters) had been depleted between December 2004 and November 2013.  The historic drought in the western United States is so severe that it is causing mountains to rise.  And ominous signs of water scarcity are not limited to the United States.  Farmers in Vietnam are converting rice paddies to shrimp farms as the dry season gets dryer and the rising South China Sea turns coastal freshwater ponds salty.  Water scarcity threatens much of the world economy, from the food industry to the mining industry to the petrochemical industry.

Though climate change accounts for a part of the unfolding water crisis, water management practices are driving the problem.  Water has long been treated as a free and inexhaustible raw material.  As a result, it’s used inefficiently.  While great progress has been made in increasing awareness of energy efficiency, water continues to be taken for granted.  Without major changes, two-thirds of the world’s population could be living in water-stressed conditions by 2025.

Water Scarcity and the Built Environment

Buildings account for about 12% of water use in the United States.  Already, water conservation efforts and greater efficiencies in using water have led to a reduction in water withdrawals.  But, for further gains, fundamentally rethinking the built environment is necessary.  For the most part, everything that needs water in a building is provided with potable freshwater.  Similarly, all wastewater is treated the same.  But not everything needs potable water.  And rather than being disposed of, some wastewater can be recycled.  Water from a sink can be reused to flush a toilet.  Water from a bathtub can be used for landscape irrigation.  When water is cheap and abundant, it makes sense to have a single system for all water needs and a single system to dispose of all “used” water.  But meeting all water needs with potable water may soon no longer be an option.

Similar recycling efforts can be achieved with stormwater runoff.  Many municipalities treat stormwater runoff and domestic sewage the same, using a combined sewer system to transport them in a single pipe to a sewage treatment plant (though heavy rainfall or snowmelt can create undesirable outcomes for combined sewers).  Rather than building infrastructure to capture and transport stormwater through gutters and sewers, capturing it to recharge groundwater or for direct nonpotable consumption can directly improve the water situation.  Indeed, the Pacific Institute estimates that urbanized Southern California and the San Francisco Bay region have the potential to increase water supplies by 420,000 to 630,000 acre-feet per year simply by better managing stormwater runoff.

One Word: Graphene

Of course, when we talk about water scarcity, we refer to only freshwater, which accounts for only 2.5% of total global water.  Desalinating abundant seawater is a seemingly attractive workaround, a way to solve water scarcity without the difficult task of changing water use habits.  Unfortunately, desalination, for now, is expensive and energy-intensive.  The most common form of desalination, reverse osmosis, forces seawater through a polymer membrane.  The membrane allows water molecules to pass, but blocks salt molecules.

Graphene, an allotrope (i.e., a different structural form) of carbon, which shows promise in battery technology, quantum computing, health monitoring, and solar cells, could reduce the cost and energy associated with desalinating water.  The gaps in polymer membranes are determined by the physical and chemical properties of the polymer used.  Gaps in graphene must be punched, so they can be sized to reduce the amount of pressure needed to pass water through but still prevent salt from passing through.  Lockheed Martin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are both working on overcoming the engineering problems associated with graphene membranes.  Commercial viability may still be several years away, but graphene may make desalination accessible enough to meet the world’s needs for clean water.

 

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