As the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere reaches a level not seen in human history, it’s worth considering how much the conventional wisdom surrounding energy has changed in the last 5 years. In 2008, domestic fossil fuel production (other than coal) was considered to be in permanent decline, with local debates on where to site natural gas import terminals. Coal-based electricity generation was assumed to be as irreplaceable as it was undesirable. Increasing energy costs and volatility were unavoidable, while renewable generation cost parity appeared within reach as the bar moved lower. A nuclear power renaissance was effectively promoted as the only carbonless solution with the potential capacity to displace coal. The dawn of transportation electrification seemed upon us, while the smart grid took a laser focus on peak load reduction.
Much has changed since then. Conventional wisdom has caught up with the gas industry experts (including some of my Navigant colleagues), who foresaw how the shale gas boom would reshape the North American energy landscape. With domestic oil and gas production up sharply, costs are expected to stabilize and volatility decrease. Planned natural gas import terminals, while still locally controversial, are morphing into export terminals. Natural gas generation is rapidly displacing coal, leading to significant carbon emissions reductions, though the enabling fracking technologies trigger new concerns. Even as the cost parity goalposts keep moving, the cost of renewables continues to decline. The Fukushima accident stalled a North American nuclear renaissance while driving Germany and Japan, at least notionally, to nuclear exits. Home refueling of natural gas vehicles could replace electric vehicle charging stations in consumer imaginations. Meanwhile, long-haul trucks, fleet vehicles, and even locomotives are adopting natural gas. And the smart grid is becoming more important as a means of power resiliency in the face of hurricanes and superstorms than as a vehicle for peak load reduction.
Cheap Gas, Smart Buildings
This all came to mind recently when I moderated a panel discussion titled “The Future Direction of Energy in North America and the Impact on the Intelligent Buildings Sector” at CABA’s Intelligent Buildings Forum in Toronto. CABA is the Continental Automated Buildings Association, a 25-year old organization dedicated to the advancement of intelligent home and intelligent building technologies (I am privileged to serve on CABA’s board). The panel participants represented the perspectives of commercial property owner/managers (Cadillac Fairview), utilities (Ontario Power Authority), suppliers (Siemens), and technology researchers (CanmetENERGY).
So what do the major shifts of the last half-decade mean for intelligent buildings? The panelists agreed that demand for improved energy efficiency remains strong, even if all the incentives for deploying the technology to deliver such efficiency are not always aligned. Local codes and mandates may be drivers, but even lower-cost energy is not free energy. Building-to-grid technologies and distributed generation may become even more important if natural gas enables local generation, which is becoming an intriguing option for the storm-ravaged Northeast United States. Most importantly, all agreed that “cheap, abundant” natural gas is unlikely to spur new interest in dumb buildings.
Tags: Building Energy Management Systems, Building Systems, Climate Change, Conferences & Events, Energy Management, Smart Buildings Program
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