How the smart grid makes buildings more sustainable

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Buildings consume significant amounts of energy. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) in the Department of Energy (DOE) reported that buildings accounted for 72 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption in 2006 and this number will rise to 75 percent by 2025.  This is split almost 50/50 between commercial and residential buildings.

Pre-recession, the ratio of new commercial building construction versus demolition was about 4:1. New buildings are generally more energy-efficient, and sometimes more sustainable than existing infrastructure.  But are any buildings ready to take on new roles as active participants in the smart grid?

For some answers, I spoke with Clay Nesler, vice president of global energy and sustainability for Johnson Controls to learn about their strategic perspectives on the role of commercial buildings in the smart grid. According to Nesler, Johnson Controls wants to “keep pushing to realize the opportunities and promises of the smart grid by increasing building intelligence and managing building performance over time.”

Like ships, buildings get “commissioned” to test that electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and other systems meet design intent and occupant requirements.  Whole building commissioning ensures that buildings operate at their full design potential.  But occupant numbers, functions, and operations can change over time.  Building management objectives have changed over time too. 

Nesler has seen a shift from “once and done” commissioning to periodic “re-commissioning” and “ongoing commissioning” -- similar to the continuous improvement processes embodied in quality management systems.  Information and communications technologies (ICT) are critical to this commissioning trend -- collecting and analyzing data from a variety of building and equipment systems to verify equipment integrity and optimize system performance.

New buildings often have this intelligence embedded into them, but existing building stock needs to be retrofitted to become more intelligent.  This is a core business for Johnson Controls, which worked with Jones Lang Lasalle and the Rocky Mountain Institute to reduce energy consumption up to 38 percent in the venerable Empire State Building.

But the retrofit business is more than improving energy consumption in buildings and prepping them for active Smart Grid-enabled participation -- it’s making buildings themselves more sustainable.  Nesler has a broad definition of building sustainability.  It has to address “efficient use of resources such as energy, water, and materials; the quality of building environment and safety for occupants; and the impacts that the building has on the environment over its entire lifecycle.”