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.

 

Nest Faces Lawsuit over Alleged Thermostat Flaws

— March 31, 2014

Nest Labs faces a new lawsuit brought by a dissatisfied Maryland customer who claims the Nest thermostat that he purchased is defective since the faceplate heats up and inaccurately measures a room’s actual temperature.  The suit, which seeks class action status, asks for more than $5 million on behalf of other Nest buyers.

The lawsuit was filed by Justin Darisse of Gaithersburg, Maryland and alleges Nest “increases costs because Nest heats up, which causes Nest’s temperature reading to be from 2 to 10 degrees higher than the actual ambient temperature in the surrounding room.”  The suit also alleges the company violates warranty and consumer protection laws.  Darisse also noted in his suit that he would have kept his $30 Honeywell thermostat had he known the Nest device, which retails for $250, would not help lower his energy bill.

Not the First Suit

Nest Labs, which is now owned by Google after a January acquisition, has declined to comment on the suit.  Nest is no stranger to lawsuits, though. There is a pending suit with Honeywell over alleged patent infringement and another patent infringement suit brought by BRK, maker of First Alert smoke alarms, related to Nest’s introduction of its Protect smoke alarm.

While the merits of this latest lawsuit will be debated for some time, the truth is that Nest and parent Google will need to fight the negative perceptions this suit is likely to generate, especially if it does attain class action status.

Mixed Bag

There is no question a Nest thermostat provides some very cool features: it has Wi-Fi to connect with a mobile device, and it learns the patterns of people in a home and can make adjustments automatically.  But my own experience has been mixed.  I installed one in my home last year to control my natural gas furnace, and so far, I have used the same number of Btus over the past 7 months as in the same months the year before.  And the installation was not easy, requiring me to hire an installer to come in after I spent many hours on my own and with a Nest tech via phone to no avail.  Also, two friends have had issues with the Nest thermostat they purchased.  One said his energy bill increased after installing his Nest thermostat.  The other also had trouble installing it by himself and later got so fed up after a software update went bad that he had it replaced with a more standard thermostat.

Now it looks like Nest could have some explaining to do in court. More to come on this, I’m sure.  And for more on the market for smart devices for energy management in the home, please sign up for Navigant Research’s webinar, “Home Energy Management,” on Tuesday, April 1 at 2:00 p.m. EDT.  To register, click here.

 

Smart Building Apps Seek Relevance

— March 20, 2014

In a world where software applications are replacing bank tellersconcierges, and even opticians, what’s the impact on the role of building engineers?  As described in Navigant Research’s Commercial Building Automation Systems report, the convergence of information technology and building control networks is yielding vast amounts of data.  Moreover, the wider adoption of open standards and the decentralization of building networks make this data widely available.  Against this backdrop, the appification of building management seems inevitable.

Still, the universe of building management applications appears to be in its infancy.  A quick search of the iTunes App Store revealed several available choices.  Apps are available from developers as large as Siemens and as small as Lorenzo Manera (I don’t know who he is, either).  The low barrier to entry in app development means that new entrants are just as capable of bringing an app to market as veteran industry players.

Most of these apps appear to turn a mobile device into another building-level control panel, providing functionalities such as monitoring and controlling heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and lighting or providing some level of energy management.  With the proliferation of open protocols, these types of apps have become easy to develop.  However, they all seem to be equally unsuccessful; none of the apps identified have received enough overall ratings for an average rating to be displayed.

Worthy or Worthless?

Smartphones and tablets provide a slew of sensors and far greater mobility than laptops.  Successful apps take advantage of these features, whether it’s the ability to play games anywhere or to use the embedded camera to snap a quick Instagram selfie.  Residential building automation provides several compelling ways to leverage the properties of mobile devices: occupancy can be set using geolocation, outside air temperatures can be provided through the Internet, and devices can remotely monitor and control lighting, HVAC, and security.  Moreover, an app can obviate the need for a system console.

Apps for commercial buildings, however, are a different story.  Since they’re built on top of an existing building management system (BMS), they don’t replace any equipment.  They don’t provide any more functionality than the underlying system.  The sensors on the device do not provide any useful input.  Some building management apps may aid in commissioning, but the biggest feature appears to be providing another way to monitor the BMS.  The Facility Prime app from Siemens, for example, is described on iTunes as “an ideal interface for non-facilities employees that may need access to live system data.”  Until building management apps can provide more functionality for commercial buildings, they will remain a cool toy for home automation.

 

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.

 

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