Navigant Research Blog

Back to the Land, in the City

— December 23, 2014

Urban farming may sound like an oxymoron, but more and more cities are looking at the role of urban food production to reduce the embedded carbon cost of transporting food long distances (food-miles), to improve food education, and to regenerate run-down city areas.

In many cities, of course, there has never been a clear line between the city and country.  A new study, for example, indicates the degree to which urban farming has a significant role in city economies.  According to the report from the International Water Management Institute (IWWI), around 69 million hectares (around 6% of the world’s cropland) are being cultivated within cities.  Furthermore, 456 million hectares (1.1 billion acres), an area roughly the size of the European Union, is under cultivation in close proximity to urban environments.

Urban farming is widely practiced across the world: 87% of cities greater than 50,000 have some irrigated farming and 98% having some rain-fed cropland.  The report suggests that there is significant potential for the local sourcing of food for the growing cities of the developing world, but it also highlights the issues this presents in terms of water and wastewater management.  In particular, a lack of water treatment facilities means that there are significant dangers to human health from cultivation that uses unclean water.

Scaling Up

In Accra, for example, 10% of the city’s wastewater may be used for urban farms without adequate treatment.  Another study has estimated that 85% of cities discharge their wastewater without appropriate treatment.  Strategies to support and expand local food provision for growing cities must, therefore, be closely aligned with improvements to water distribution and water treatment systems. Developing cities need to find ways to integrate existing urban farming sites with their water management and land use policies if they are to retain the benefits of local production.

In the developed cities of North America and other parts of the world, urban farming has been recognized since the 1970s as an important tool to help community regeneration programs in areas like the Bronx in New York.  Now cities are looking to technology to make local production viable at a commercial scale.

To Feed the Center

For example, Lufa Farms is running two rooftop gardens in Montreal using hydroponic technology, which provides nutrients to plants through an integrated water system rather than soil.  They have also been reassessing the sales and distribution issues that are equally important to make urban farming commercially successful.  Other technologies to enable large-scale urban food production include aquaponics, which integrates fish and plant farming, as practiced by Urban Organics in St. Paul, Minnesota. Urban Organics is located in a former brewery and is part of a broader, city-supported urban regeneration program.  In Europe, LokDepot in Basel, Switzerland is the first commercial aquaponics farm.

Any true measure of a city’s total energy consumption, its environmental footprint, or its economic resilience needs to consider the relationship between the urban center and the resources on which it relies.  Food production is one of the most important of those resources.   In different ways the community gardens and high-tech vertical farms of North American and European cities and the farming enclaves of Accra and other cities in Africa and Asia all show how cities need to think more locally about food production.  As droughts and expanding urban populations put pressure on water supplies and food costs, an intelligent approach to food production will become a critical issue for many communities.

 

Commercial Real Estate Holders Realize the Value of Energy Management

— December 23, 2014

Conventional wisdom states that the split incentive of tenant-occupied commercial buildings undercuts the benefits of energy efficiency and smart building development.  Those tides are shifting, though, and major commercial real estate (CRE) firms are doubling down on investment and promoting the value of strategic energy management.  In the last few months, major CRE firms have announced new strategies and corporate perspectives that highlight the promising future for smart commercial buildings.

America Realty Advisors has discussed a new sustainability strategy for its $6 billion commercial real estate portfolio in a recent article in National Real Estate Investor.  The first steps include benchmarking energy and water use and conducting targeted energy audits at under-performing facilities.  CRE firms are seeing that smart, efficient buildings translate to stronger bottom lines.  American Realty Advisors’ managing director Jay Butterfield explained in the article: “We have seen that firms successfully reducing a property’s energy usage by 30% may realize increases of up to 5% in both net operating income and asset value.”

Making a Stand

JLL has also taken its stance on energy efficiency and sustainability to the front lines, promoting its IntelliCommand energy management system as a service offering and taking a stand on climate change.  In a recent editorial supporting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Power Plan, JLL’s Dan Probst explained, “Our energy efficiency initiatives have helped our commercial real estate clients reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 12 million metric tons while saving them $2.5 billion in energy costs over the past seven years.”

The benefits of strategic energy management go beyond the CRE giants and their flagship Class A buildings.  Two recent examples demonstrate the economic impacts of energy efficiency upgrades in Class B buildings.  In Houston, a 24-story office building and historic landmark went through significant upgrades in 2011, including the installation of a building energy management system, and Hines (the real estate management company that manages the building) is touting the benefits.  Hines sees this kind of strategic energy management focus helping lower capitalization rate, generate operations and maintenance (O&M) savings, and stay competitive.

Too Big to Ignore

Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, the benefits of energy efficiency in Class B buildings are too big to dismiss.  The energy and sustainability benefits of Class B upgrades in New York are underscored by the added benefit of helping building owners prepare for the energy reductions targets for 2020, under the bundle of laws supporting the PlaNYC climate change agenda.

The mounting risks of climate change, rising demand for sustainable workplaces, and maturing market of smart building technologies are combining to spark momentum in CRE strategic energy management investments.  These CRE early adopters are laying the groundwork for the growing penetration of smart building investments in commercial buildings.

 

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, sportsbook 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.

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 represent 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.

 

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