Navigant Research Blog

With Thread, Nest Targets Wireless Energy Devices

— July 29, 2014

It’s been a busy year for Palo Alto, California-based Nest.  In January, the firm was acquired by Google.  Last month, Nest announced that it would acquire Dropcam, which offers a Wi-Fi-enabled portable camera that pairs with a cloud-based video monitoring service.  Days later, the company launched the Nest Developer Program, enrolling early partners Mercedes-Benz, LIFX, Whirlpool, and Jawbone.

More recently, Nest introduced Thread, a personal area network (PAN) specification for device interconnectivity.  This specification will be regulated by the Thread Group, of which Chris Boross of Nest will be president.  Competing with other wireless specifications such as ZigBee, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth Smart, Thread is a low-power mesh-based solution that follows the IEEE 802.15.4 and IPv6 standards.

Much of the coverage (see here and here) of the Nest/Thread announcement has asked whether we really need another standard for networking in-home devices.  Thread, though, has some advantages over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.  Wi-Fi uses a lot of power, which makes it impractical for low-power battery-operated devices such as thermostats or smoke alarms.  Bluetooth Smart is already installed in most smartphones and is low power, but its range is limited.  ZigBee has encountered problems with vendors making proprietary adjustments to the specification, making it impossible or very difficult for devices to interoperate.

Looking for Options

The burgeoning number of entrants in the networking protocol space signals increased competition and perceived high value to be found in the market for connected devices.  For retail consumers, this means better products at lower prices that are easier to integrate into their connected life schema.

Unfortunately, for utilities looking to integrate energy-saving devices such as smart thermostats and lighting controls into their energy efficiency and demand response programs, multiple network protocol alliances present problems.  In order to implement these programs, utilities are subject to numerous technology restrictions and standards from state public utilities commissions or regional independent system operators.  OpenADR and ZigBee Smart Energy Profile are among these standards, and the further that protocol competition pushes the retail device market away from these, the narrower the options will be for utilities.

Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has engaged in extensive research on different models of smart thermostats, hoping to identify those that are easy to use and will yield a stronger customer experience (as well as meet energy efficiency and curtailment goals).  However, any model that the utility looks at is subject to a number of technical requirements.  Since these are set by regulating bodies, it’s unlikely that requirements will remain in stride with developments driven in the commercial market.  As it is, the economics of utility deployments are not always favorable to vendors, particularly in programs where more than one thermostat option is offered and sales volumes are uncertain.  It remains to be seen whether vendors will offer devices and platforms that can be used by the organizations that will require them to meet energy efficiency directives and load curtailment needs.

 

Energy Efficient Solutions for Retail Stores Begin To Emerge

— July 23, 2014

The retail landscape is in flux, to say the least.  Earlier this year, Staples announced the closure of 225 stores.  Troubled Best Buy isn’t closing any stores this year, but it was one of the several retailers to close stores in 2013).  Things aren’t all so bleak for big box retail, though.  Costco is in the midst of a 5-year plan to open 150 new stores.  Meanwhile, Walmart announced a strategy of shifting toward 10,000 SF to 40,000 SF grocery and convenience-type stores, away from 200,000 SF superstores.  Large retailers are rethinking their physical footprint.  Part of the shifting landscape comes down to the fact that brick-and-mortar stores, particularly warehouse-type stores, are costly to operate.  Moreover, the energy efficient operation of these assets is hindered by factors such as unpredictable occupancy, high ceilings, and vast open space.  However, smart building technologies are being developed for the specific challenges that face retail buildings.

There are numerous approaches to improving the energy efficiency of buildings (see Navigant Research’s reports Energy Efficiency Retrofits for Commercial and Public Buildings and Building Energy Management Systems).  But many of these aren’t appropriate for large, big box retail buildings.  A recent brief from Johnson Controls’ Institute for Building Efficiency provides a thorough analysis that quantifies the cost and payback of various building efficiency improvements for commercial office buildings.  It details 16 measures that represent 90% of possible energy savings.  Unfortunately, most of those do not address big box retail; they focus on using energy for building occupants, not for empty spaces.  That translates to providing cooling, lighting, and even power for computers only when occupants are in the space.  Though these measures work in office buildings, healthcare facilities, schools, and many other commercial buildings, they don’t provide the same opportunity to many retail spaces.

What does a smart retail look like?

Many retailers have aggressively pursued demand-controlled ventilation, lighting and controls upgrades, and advanced efficiency compressors for HVAC and refrigeration to reduce operating costs.  But the cutting edge of smart building technology for retailers focuses more on the consumer experience than on energy efficiency.  GE Lighting and BryteLight, for instance, are using next-generation LED fixtures to provide location-based services for retailers.  Similarly, the Open Group, a consortium that enables the achievement of business objectives through IT standards, has outlined a use-case of using sensors to provide real-time information to retail customers.

However, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s SENSEable City Lab has recently unveiled a concept to use smart sensing technology to reduce energy consumption.  Local Warming creates a controllable heating zone around an individual occupant, leaving the rest of the space at a neutral temperature.  The solution relies upon a Wi-Fi-based motion tracking system that controls a system of mirrors and rotating motors to direct an infrared energy beam onto an occupant.  In the future, LED technology can further reduce the complexity of the system by allowing a more distributed source of infrared heat.

Local Warming Concept

(Source: SENSEable City Lab)

While the system is not specifically designed for retail, the most compelling application for Local Warming is clearly big-box retail.  These retail spaces are typically large and sparsely occupied.  Additionally, infrared heating has long been employed in large retail spaces.  Infrared heaters, which transfer heat through radiation rather than convection, warm occupants without having to warm the air.  In warehouse-like stores, with lots of air relative to the number of people in it, infrared provides an efficient method of heating.  Local Warming may signal a shift in the use of advanced sensor and location-based services in retail to the development of more advanced efficiency solutions.

 

Lighting Innovation: Not Just LEDs

— July 23, 2014

Attendees at the LightFair convention in Las Vegas could be excused for thinking that the show was exclusively focused on LEDs and that LED lighting has already taken over the vast majority of the market.  Surveying the convention floor, new LED products were on display in every direction, and even the big traditional lighting companies seemed to only be showcasing their LED offerings.

Ones to Grow With

However, while LED lighting is starting to represent the majority of sales in some applications, such as street lighting (see Navigant Research’s report, Smart Street Lighting), many other applications, such as office lighting, are still monopolized by older lamp technologies and are only beginning to see competitive LED products.  Moreover, some companies are devoting R&D dollars to develop new non-LED products, and there will certainly be a role for those products to play in a future that will be largely, but not completely, taken over by LEDs.  A few examples of companies that highlighted non-LED products at LightFair are:

  • Indoor Grow Science (IGS) – This company had a much-visited display of its high-pressure sodium (HPS) grow lights, which feature a patented method for venting waste heat so that it does not negatively impact plant growth.  A company representative explained that while IGS is working on LED-based grow lights, there are a number of challenges involved that its officials believe will leave the indoor agriculture industry using HPS and metal halide lamps at least for the near future.  Heat dissipation still has to be managed with LED lamps.  In addition, plants require UV-A and UV-B light, which standard LEDs do not supply.  While UV LEDs are available, they generally degrade faster, which could leave a grower with a light that looks operational to the eye but is not meeting the needs of the plants.
  • Luxim – Having made a splash at LightFair 2013 with impressive demonstrations of its light emitting plasma (LEP) technology, Luxim impressed again this year with the launch of its Resilient brand of industrial-strength products that include LEP, LED, and induction-based lamps.  While LEP lamps have a tiny market share, this company makes a strong case that they can be the right choice in applications that require very bright lights, especially those that benefit from a small point source of light.  Another advantage is a lack of any flicker, which allows for the use of very high-speed photography in sporting and other applications.
  • Genesys – While not an official LightFair vendor, this company’s representatives were busy at the conference making the case for their gHID ballast.  As opposed to typical HID ballasts that operate at a frequency of 50 Hz  to 60 Hz, the Genesys product runs at over 100,000 Hz, increasing efficiency to be comparable to LEDs, as well as extending both lamp and driver life by factors of 2 to 3 times and 3 to 4 times respectively.  The gHID ballast is largely being sold as a retrofit product, where it can often fit inside existing luminaires or be attached outside of them.  Therefore, it does not require the complete infrastructure change that many LED retrofits involve.  In the longer term, the company sees its product as complementary to LEDs, providing a solution for applications where LEDs may not be as successful such as higher wattage lights.

While these companies showcased innovative non-LED products, the leadership of LEDs at LightFair 2014 would be hard to deny.  Out of 27 entrants for the innovation awards in the commercial indoor category, all 27 were LED-based.  Other lamp types may maintain sizable portions of the installed base for years to come and may continue to make sense in certain specific applications, but it’s undeniable that the age of the LED is upon us.

 

In New York, Greening Older Buildings

— July 21, 2014

Building energy efficiency has reached the mainstream.  Clean energy technologies have become so common that technical training in renewable energy and energy efficiency retrofits is becoming more and more accessible.

Green City Force (GCF), a Brooklyn, New York-based non-profit, has trained nearly 300 young adults living under the poverty line in NYC for careers in the green economy with the group’s Clean Energy Corps.

The Clean Energy Corps supports a variety of projects related to energy and efficiency, including energy audits in low-income homes, urban agriculture, and energy efficiency retrofits.  The corps provides its members with an academic and technical training program to prepare them for college; the program leads to certification for entry-level work in energy efficiency and includes GPro, a nationally recognized certification in building science.

Retrofitting

One of the major partners for Green City Force, and for the Clean Energy Corps specifically, is the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).  More than 8.4 million people reside in New York City, and 615,199 of them are served by the authority’s Public Housing and Section 8 programs.  This represents 7.4% of the population of New York City.  Together, both programs cover 12.4% of the rental apartment stock in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

The Housing Authority’s property portfolio is equally impressive and rivals commercial housing developers.  The NYCHA oversees 334 developments, including 2,563 buildings and nearly 178,000 apartments.  In contrast, the Chicago Housing Authority has 21,000 apartments in 128 properties.  Los Angeles has 2,491 apartments across a portfolio of 93 properties.   Only 20% of the developments in NYCHA’s portfolio are less than 30 years old, and one-third of the authority’s developments are more than 50 years old.  Modern buildings are built with energy efficiency in mind, but older buildings have more room for improvement.

The More the Better

GCF develops service projects in partnership with the Housing Authority, city agencies, and other non-profits.  One example is the Love Where You Live Challenge, which bring corps members together with fellow NYCHA residents to reduce energy use in homes.  Corps members gain experience and skills, while the Authority reduces its energy costs.  NYCHA spends $535 million annually on utilities.

The NYCHA is not the only public agency using innovative approaches to promote energy efficiency.  The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) recently awarded Philips Lighting a 10-year lighting performance contract to upgrade lighting across 25 parking garages to LED lighting.  Instead of paying out of pocket for the 13,000 fixtures, WMATA will share the savings in energy costs with Phillips over the 10-year period.

For disruptive technologies such as energy efficiency, the more business models in the market, the more accessible the clean energy economy becomes.

 

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