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, 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Although HVAC systems have been a target of recent conservation efforts, older hotels rely on outdated systems.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.

 

Are Corporate Clean Energy Initiatives Real?

— December 10, 2014

In November, Amazon made a commitment to power its infrastructure with 100% renewable energy over the long term.  Among tech companies, Amazon is late to the game in announcing its sustainability goal; Apple, Google, and Facebook had already released similar pledges over the past few years.  Although cloud computing is more environmentally friendly than previous computing technologies, according to Amazon, a “significant amount of unused server capacity and wasted energy consumption” still occurs when powering data center infrastructure.

Since 2008, businesses and corporations around the world have begun to more actively pursue sustainability initiatives.  Between 1992 and 2012, the number of corporations worldwide issuing corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports jumped from 26 to around 7,500.

Fortune 500 Leads the Way

Many of the leaders in corporate sustainability are part of the Fortune 500.  In 2013, 43% of Fortune 500 companies had established goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, energy efficiency, renewable energy, or some combination of the three, and 60% of Fortune 100 companies had set sustainability targets.  Although large corporations have made progress in establishing sustainability initiatives, only 75 of the Fortune 500 had specific energy efficiency targets in place by 2013.  GHG reduction targets made up the greatest share of climate and energy initiatives.

Companies with long-standing commitments to reducing energy use have already seen energy and dollar savings from these initiatives.  Walmart, for example, laid out plans in 2013 to save $1 billion globally per year through energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.  The company has a long-term aspirational goal to achieve 100% renewable energy.  In the shorter term, by the end of 2020, Walmart aims to reduce emissions intensity by 30% from 2010 levels and produce or procure 7 billion kWh of renewable energy worldwide.

The Trouble with Long Term

Kohl’s is another leader in corporate sustainability efforts.  It has been implementing green building methods since 2005, and it had 432 LEED-certified stores as of June 2014, representing a full 37% of the company’s 1,160 stores across the United States.  The 432 stores represent a total floor space of 35,616,240 square feet.  Kohl’s plans to reduce absolute emissions and emissions intensity on a per-square-foot basis by 20%, both by 2020, compared to 2010 levels.

Although the growing prevalence of CSR and sustainability goals is encouraging, broad long-term goals have raised concern from some environmental groups.  Setting goals without defined milestones makes it more difficult to hold companies accountable for the clean energy initiatives they have in place.  Many companies, Amazon included, have not specified a roadmap to achieve their energy goals – an obvious next step to ensure those goals are achieved.  Publicly committing to a clean energy future is only a first step.

 

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.

 

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