Navigant Research Blog

Technology and Substance in Sustainability

— March 18, 2016

Springtime landscape over natural oilseed rape fieldSustainability has been a part of the corporate vernacular for decades. The concept has primarily been tied to corporate branding, but the priority, investments, and influence of the champions of sustainability has been limited—until now. Major moves by some of the world’s most influential businesses indicate that an important shift is underway. Sustainability is moving up the food chain as technology brings substance to targets, as future leaders demand real commitments, and as organizations acknowledge the real risks of inaction.

A recent GreenBiz article announced the “promotion” of sustainability at Microsoft. As the article highlights, the elevation in reporting only underscores the deepening commitment more corporations are making toward sustainability. As Rob Bernard, chief environmental strategist for Microsoft, explained, “It’s an acceleration, amplification and prioritization of sustainability within the company. It’s now a cross-company initiative that has a center of gravity in the president’s office.” Other tech giants and major corporations have similarly moved sustainability into the boardroom, indicating rising influence of the position.

Three Indicators of Change

Technology brings substance to sustainability. Let’s hone in on the metrics and actions that organizations are taking to meet their sustainability goals. LEED, ENERGY STAR, and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) have helped businesses define their footprint and identify metrics for sustainability. However, there is momentum spurring something deeper. Technology is redefining energy use in buildings—a major contributor to most companies’ operational and environmental footprint. As we highlighted in a recent white paper, intelligent building technologies help customers meet the requirements of green labeling and provide ongoing insight into system improvements. Software can provide real-time data at the asset level that ensures efficiency improvements are maintained for meeting sustainability targets, but can also streamline operations and maintenance and deliver data for capital planning, thereby directly improving the bottom line.

Future leadership—the millennials—demand it. The makeup of the future workforce is a hot topic across industry as companies undergo long-term planning and implement strategies for recruitment and retention. We’ve hit the tipping point, and according to the Pew Research Center, millennials now make up the largest share of the U.S. workforce. This is important as these future leaders have different priorities and expectations. A recent survey by Sustainable Brands found that 60% of millennials are committed to increasing sustainability practices at their place of employment. This finding and others like it suggest that sustainability will only become more important from a corporate perspective as younger workers move up the ladder.

The threats are real. Take a look at sustainability reports for any major corporation and the topic often turns to climate change on page one. Despite the political wrangling in the United States, corporations are coming to terms with what climate change may mean for their business. They want clarity on regulation, they’re responding to shareholder demands, and they’re taking a stand in the public arena for climate change action. Recently, 17 top British executives signed a letter in the Independent acknowledging the value of standardization in expectations for climate risk disclosure in annual reporting. The message resonates in the United States as well, as the New York Times reported earlier this year. Major investors—including CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System), the Connecticut state investment fund, and Calvert Investments—made a public demand to the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) for the issuance of a rule to make climate change expectations concrete in public disclosure.

The evidence is clear: Sustainability is becoming a strategic imperative for major corporations. Technology can make sustainability goals attainable and economic, employees demand it, and shareholders are tying it to bottom line valuation.


Overcoming the Building Big Data Challenge

— March 1, 2016

Network switch and UTP ethernet cablesAs the cost of sensors has dropped and the amount of computational power and data storage has increased, the amount of building data available has increased considerably. Moore’s law observes that overall computer processing power doubles every 2 years. There is value in having large amounts of data and processing power, but how to manage and get useful information out of the data is a challenge. With dozens of equipment vendors, sensor manufacturers, and building automation systems, data sets often come back with various formats, naming conventions, and syntaxes. While the potential for using large data sets to improve energy and operational efficiencies is significant, the difficulties of organizing and understanding the data is still being overcome.

Government Initiatives

The Standard Energy Efficiency Data (SEED) platform was built by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to gather, sort and analyze complex building data. The software helps users combine, organize, and authenticate data from multiple sources. The data sets can then be shared among platform users with the intent of developing methods to calculate and demonstrate economic and environmental benefits of energy efficiency initiatives. The SEED platform is also useful for generating benchmarks and displaying key metrics for facilities. In late 2015, the DOE extended the SEED platform to the SEED Collaborative to encourage the partnership and participation of states and local governments. The collaborative includes several major cities, including New York and Atlanta, in addition to the California Energy Commission, and Washington, D.C. to name a few. The strategic partnerships between the SEED Collaborative and states and cities will help the platform reach additional software developers and service providers to improve interoperability and data transparency.

Open Source Efforts

Project Haystack is a corporation formed with the intent of developing semantic modeling solutions for smart device data. The open source effort includes a variety of automation software companies and associations working together to map existing building data models and taxonomies, with the aim to improve the cost-effectiveness of creating value from the data sets. Project Haystack intends to standardize semantic models for all building systems and other intelligent devices. If facility owners, systems integrators, and software providers use common naming conventions, they can expect easier integration for value-added services that facility data can provide.


Energy Efficient Buildings: The Last Bridge for Bipartisan Cooperation in 2016

— February 16, 2016

HVAC Air conditioning unitsPresident Obama recently released the budget for his final year in office; in his message to Congress, he outlined a few key priorities that could have a significant impact on the intelligent buildings market. There is no doubt that a rocky road lies ahead before these aspirations could become a reality. There are benefits to energy efficiency and intelligent building solutions that could be a cornerstone of some bipartisan compromise in the last year of his administration.

Obama stated that, “The challenge of climate change will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other. … Rather than shrinking from the challenge, America must foster the spirit of innovation to create jobs, building a climate-smart economy of the future, and protect the only planet we have.” Energy efficient and intelligent building technologies are effective targets for bipartisan policy development because while they can deliver significant climate impacts, the economic benefits are nonpolitical. It bodes well for the intelligent buildings market if the following line items make it through the difficult negotiation period ahead:

  • An 8% increase in funding between 2015 and 2016 for projects supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE)
  • $169 million for emerging technologies in the buildings sector

EERE has also released the 2016-2020 program plan, which outlines the goals for technology development, accelerating market adoption, and defining new energy codes and standards. The Building Technologies Office (BTO) has high expectations for energy efficient buildings and its role in market transformation:

  • BTO estimates that by 2020, “accelerated technology development” will lead to cost-effective, energy efficient solutions available that are 30% more efficient than the high efficiency solutions of 2010
  • “BTO’s ultimate goal is reduce the average energy use per square foot in all U.S. buildings by 50% from 2010 levels”

Benchmarking Buildings

Intelligent building technologies have an important role to play in making these federal goals a reality because the information technology backbone can deliver the transparency and accountability to validate and verify the cost savings of energy efficiency. An intelligent building can support the federal budget and policy goals through data collection devices and software analytics (building energy management systems) that provide real-time monitoring of system performance and building utilization. This means that decision makers have the tools to monitor energy costs, measure the savings associated with energy efficiency equipment retrofits, and benchmark performance over time.

Navigant Research recently published a new report on advanced sensors that highlights how these devices are central to monitoring energy efficiency, cost savings, performance improvement, and occupant satisfaction. In just a few weeks, I will join Intel and Lucid to discuss how intelligent building solutions transform data into action for energy savings. Join us for this roundtable webinar discussion and share your thoughts on the role of intelligent buildings and the promise of energy efficiency.


Washington, D.C., the Future of Buildings

— February 4, 2016

modern square and skyscrapersWashington, D.C. is fast becoming the hub of smart building innovation. According to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Annual Top 10 States for LEED Green Building report, the region has been described as the epicenter of green building. Indeed, if Washington, D.C. were a state (which it should be), it would have the highest per capita LEED-certified gross square footage of any state—19.3 (compared to 3.4 in Illinois, for example). Of course, some say Washington, D.C. should never be compared to a state. Yet the city only trails 5 states in total LEED-certified floor space.

One path to greener buildings is through more intelligent buildings. When the systems that run buildings are better able to sense and react to real-world conditions, they are able to use less energy and create a healthier, more comfortable environment. This has translated into the steady expansion of sensors and controls that connect to each other and to the Internet—see Navigant Research’s Internet of Things (IoT) for Residential Customers report for a more in-depth view. Though better connected buildings solve some problems, increased Internet connectivity can create substantial cyber security threats.

To Security and Beyond

Historically, buildings systems—such as lighting, HVAC, and security and access controls—have existed on their own isolated networks. Integrating them together not only provides opportunities for efficiencies in management, it also creates a rich source of data for analytics and optimization. To accomplish that, these once-isolated networks need to connect to the Internet.

On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be a threat for anything more than a nuisance. What is the problem if someone alters the temperature in a building? The problem is that once a device on a building network is compromised, it can be used as a point of attack for other devices on the network. As a result, the increased convergence of building systems and IT systems can leave companies’ entire IT systems vulnerable to attacks routed through building systems.

Though these cyber vulnerabilities threaten intelligent buildings themselves, they may not threaten Washington’s reign over smart building installations. Washington, D.C. could see $1 billion in cyber venture funding in 2016. As industries that rely on things connected to the Internet—such as robotics, the IoT, and intelligent buildings—continue to flourish, the need for advanced security will drive investment.


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