Navigant Research Blog

How Green Is My Casino?

— December 21, 2014

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I found myself wondering just how much energy is being consumed compared to other cities around the country.  It doesn’t take much research to grasp the enormous amount of energy needed to power all the neon, slot machines, sound systems, sports book TV screens, and massive air conditioners required to make the desert city an international tourist destination.  While recent efforts by resorts to “green” their operations have made an impact, they don’t address the root of the problem.  Sin City is unique in its geographic location – which provides both challenges and opportunities to operate a sustainable energy system.

Can’t Take the Heat

Las Vegas’ desert location would be very uncomfortable throughout the summer without modern air conditioning.  This presents significant challenges to resort designers who must overcome the desert sun to provide comfortable environments across millions of square feet.  At the scale of an individual hotel room, this challenge is easier to understand.  Large floor to ceiling windows are quite popular in the city but allow tremendous amounts of heat to enter the room.  Simply installing automatic blinds or smart glass windows could dramatically reduce this effect.

Although HVAC systems have been a target of recent conservation efforts, older hotels rely on outdated systems.  The New York, New York hotel I stayed in had only a very basic analog thermostat with simple controls and no ability to schedule.  Innovations to improve the efficiency of commercial HVAC system are discussed in Navigant Research’s report, Advanced HVAC Controls.  Perhaps the most effective addition to this hotel would be the installation of advanced occupancy sensors.  Visitors in Las Vegas often spend long periods of time outside of their hotel rooms.  In many cases, lights are left on and cooling systems set at full blast while a room is unoccupied for hours.  Occupancy sensors, integrated with a more intelligent building management system (BMS), could dramatically reduce the amount of energy used by each hotel room.  This could be an extremely beneficial investment for hotels that must absorb the cost of energy used by their guests.  Solutions to improve efficiency in hotels are explored in detail in Navigant Research’s recent report, Energy Management in the Hospitality Industry.

Untapped Resources

While the natural environment of southern Nevada poses challenges to conserve energy, it also provides vast untapped potential to generate it.  The Hoover Dam has enabled dramatic growth in Las Vegas over the years, although it currently provides barely 20% of the city’s peak energy needs.  As noted in a recent blog by my colleague Mackinnon Lawrence, recent droughts threaten the reliability of this resource, as well as the viability of fossil fuel plants requiring large amounts of water to keep cool.  A quick glance out my hotel room window revealed a massive casino roof – a perfect spot for a solar array totally unutilized.  Satellite images of the city show that this is very common and little to no solar power is installed on roofs of power-hungry mega-resorts.

For a city that receives intense sunshine nearly year-round, this is a huge opportunity to generate clean and affordable power.  And efforts are underway to take advantage of the clean energy resource available to the city.  This past summer, MGM Resorts announced a partnership with NRG Energy to install a massive rooftop solar array at the Mandalay Bay Resort.  The 20,000 panel, 6.2 MW installation is expected to generate nearly 20% of the Mandalay Bay’s power demand.  This project represents an important step in the right direction; hopefully, it will inspire others in the city to fully utilize the natural resources available to them.

 

Two Reasons 2015 Will Be a Bright Year for Smart Buildings

— December 21, 2014

It’s been an important year for the smart buildings market in the United States, and recent trends suggest increasing momentum in near-term technology adoption.  Vendors are making waves on two fronts:  innovative financing options have been introduced to lower upfront costs to customers; and vendors are finding ways to scale smart building solutions to the small and medium business (SMB) segment – a critical move toward substantial market penetration.

Less Money Down

Finding the cash is often the biggest challenge to smart building investment for today’s early adopters.   Innovative technologies provide a rapid payback coupled with valuable, yet hard-to-quantify operational efficiencies.  But many customers just don’t have the capital for new hardware and systems to develop smart buildings.  Noesis Energy and Daintree Networks provide two examples of cost-effective alternatives to traditional energy efficiency and smart building investment.

This year Noesis Energy announced a new $30 million investment fund to support a shared savings approach to smart building investment.  Customers can access $300,000 to $1 million to finance their smart building development projects and repay the financing through the energy savings realized on their monthly utility bills.   This approach mimics the traditional energy performance contracting models that have been common in public sector energy efficiency projects for years.

More recently, Daintree Networks announced a new subscription model for energy management, which helps customers take advantage of smart buildings technology with a monthly fee instead of hefty upfront capital costs.   Daintree’s Building Energy Management as a Service provides a cloud-based application of the company’s ControlScope software.   This subscription model has been adopted by U.S. smart building analytics startups to shift a capital cost that may derail investment into an operational cost that fuels innovation and efficiency.

Watch for new research on smart building financing in Navigant Research’s report, Energy Services Companies, scheduled for publication in 1Q 2015.

On the Small Side

According to Navigant Research’s report, Energy Management for Small and Medium Buildings, investment in the SMB sector is expected to surpass $1 billion by 2022.  The opportunities in this sector are critical for the future of smart buildings because SMBs represents the largest portion of the overall building stock.

Vendors have honed in on opportunities to engage larger organizations with portfolios of smaller buildings.   These projects represent a proving ground for solution scalability.  GridPoint, for example, has showcased performance in retail and fast serve restaurants.  Last month, GridPoint announced that it has helped the retail chain VF Outlet achieve an average energy savings of 26% across the portfolio since 2012.  When you bring this level of savings to a portfolio of facilities, it creates a compelling business case.  It’s evident the market players – from startups to major players – see the need to tackle SMBs.   In early January, EnerNOC announced it had acquired Pulse Energy as a means of expanding its offerings to service all commercial and industrial customers.

 

Improved LED Christmas Lights Decorate the Tree

— December 9, 2014

As people around the globe dig through their closets this holiday season to locate strings of lights to decorate their trees and houses, a portion of those looking to decorate will decide that it is time to purchase new lights.  When those people arrive at stores or check out online retailers, they will find a wider selection of LED options than ever before.  Most of the traditional incandescent styles of string lights have been replaced with LEDs.  The question is: Will the average consumer make the upgrade?

One of the most important filters is quality.  A consumer may be interested in purchasing LEDs, but he or she first needs to know that the product will meet expectations.  Though LED decorative string lights have been available for a number of years, their quality has not always been up to par.  Early models were often quite dim.  For bare white lights, that dimness was not a large concern because the small points of light were still easily visible.  For styles with larger bulbs, and especially colored bulbs, the lack of brightness was a significant downside, as the lights hardly looked to be illuminated in any but the darkest conditions.  This shortcoming has been overcome.  Today’s LED string lights are every bit as bright as their incandescent predecessors.

On Flicker

A second quality issue that affected bare white lights was flicker.  Because LED chips can respond so quickly to changes in electrical current, alternating current (AC) power can actually cause them to turn on and off at the frequency of that power (50 to 60 times per second).  The blinking that results may not be noticeable when staring directly toward an LED light, but movement of the head or eyes can allow peripheral vision to detect the flicker.  When this occurs from dozens or hundreds of individual string lights, the effect can ruin the cheeriest holiday party.

Again, though, LED string lights on the market today have corrected this problem through improved driver technology, eliminating any perceptible flicker.  Indeed, depending on the style of light, LEDs can be virtually indistinguishable from their incandescent counterparts.

As with LED lighting for commercial and residential applications, prices for LED string lights have fallen greatly in recent years, but the LED version can still be 2 to 5 times as expensive as the comparable incandescent option.  While this range of price difference is similar to the premium paid for residential or commercial LED products, the business case for holiday lights may seem worse.

White Light, No Heat

In our recently published report, Energy Efficient Lighting for Commercial Markets, Navigant Research describes the various trends that are pushing the adoption of LED lighting and shows that upfront price parity is not a prerequisite to widespread adoption, especially if the payback period from energy savings is relatively short.  However, commercial lights operate for many more hours compared to decorative string lights, which may only be on for 6 to 8 hours per day, and for one month out of the year.

Other considerations will certainly influence consumers’ decisions as well.  Environmentally-minded purchasers might like to know that their holiday lights aren’t consuming any more electricity than necessary.  Those who are safety-conscious would surely appreciate that the lights resting on the dry needles of the trees inside their homes generate as little heat as possible, as LEDs do.  Overall, not every consumer will be ready to upgrade to LED string lights this year ‑ but the barriers are dropping fast and the future of Christmas decorations is almost certainly digital.

 

In Germany, a Small Town Becomes an Energy Dynamo

— December 8, 2014

A small town in Germany has become a symbol of what is possible for renewable energy and of the challenges it presents to the traditional utility model.  Wildpoldsried, in southern Bavaria, produces 500% more energy than it needs.  The town of approximately 2,600 people does this through solar, wind, biogas, and hydro systems and a healthy dose of government subsidies.

The transformation of the town’s energy use enabled it to produce all of its electricity well before the target date of 2020.  The excess energy, however, presented the regional utility, Allgäuer Überlandwerke GmbH (AÜW), with a problem: How to integrate the surplus renewable energy into the wider grid? So the utility partnered with Siemens on a project called the Integration of Regenerative Energy and Electrical Mobility (IRENE).  Using sensors throughout the town’s energy systems, operators are able to measure various levels of current, voltage, and frequency, and then a self-organizing automation system balances supply and demand to stabilize the grid.  In addition, local homeowners who have energy-producing systems (e.g., solar PV) are now prosumers, and each has a small device that controls how much power is sold back to the grid and at what minimum price, creating, in effect, a small-scale distributed energy resource market that feeds into the larger grid.

Cars, Solar PV, & the Grid

Wildpoldsried is not alone in attempts to modernize and create a more efficient grid.  In the wake of the March 2011 Fukushima disaster, officials in Japan have been wrestling with how to create more sustainable cities.  The Japan Smart City initiative includes projects in Yokohama, Toyota City, Keihanna (Kyoto), and Kitakyushu.  In Yokohama, for instance, one of the trials involves a home energy management system provided by Panasonic that integrates solar PV systems with battery storage.  In another trial, automaker Nissan has been testing a vehicle-to-home system, in which electrical power is furnished to homes from the batteries mounted in electric vehicles. (For more on these types of vehicle-grid integration projects, please attend Navigant Research’s free webinar, Electric Vehicles and the Grid, on February 10, 2015, at 2 p.m. ET.  Click here to register.)

Net Zero

Similarly, in the United States, California continues to be a bellwether for renewable energy and sustainability.  The state’s Zero Net Energy (ZNE) policy requires all new residential construction to be ZNE by 2020; a ZNE home is one that produces as much renewable, grid-tied energy onsite, such as from a solar PV system, as it uses during a calendar year.  Homebuilder KB Homes has constructed such a zero-net home in the Sacramento area that features a rooftop solar PV system with battery storage, an advanced greywater recycling system, triple-pane windows, and heavy duty insulation.  In the city of Lancaster, builders are offering similar types of ZNE homes as that city attempts to become a leader in alternative energy.

What Wildpoldsried and these other cities demonstrate is that through technology, regulations, and cooperation with utilities, a smarter and eco-friendly grid is possible.  For skeptics, these are real world examples of what is possible.  Yes, this can mean disruption of current business models.  But it does not have to mean destruction.  As noted in Navigant Research’s free white paper, Smart Grid: 10 Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond, these and other smart grid trends are expected to unfold in the coming years, and stakeholders must adapt to this transforming energy landscape.

 

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