July 2008
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Newton's Fall

Efforts to solve traditional building-grid interactions as command and control interactions will fail if they leave out the human and social factors.

Toby Considine
Toby Considine
Systems Specialist,
Facility Services, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
The New Daedalus

Contributing Editor

Industry thought leaders have been calling for defining the middleware to reside atop building systems. This is not new; a CABA report called five years ago for the development of building middleware standards. Today, Im explaining why we need this middleware.

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Ten years ago, Apple ended the Newton product line. The Newton was influential. It brought the PDA to the consumer consciousness. Even the most basic cell phone today incorporates some aspect of features found in the Newton. The Newton was doomed initially by insufficient attention to usability. In the longer term it was destroyed because even newer improved versions did not make a break with the installed base, did not break the interaction patterns learned by early adopters that prevented wider adoption. Most people were unwilling to spend the time to learn to interact with the Newton and its quirky gesture system.

Most building systems today have interfaces far worse than the Newton. They demand that the user learn to love them, and respect the processes they manage. It is understandable that the people who build them love these processes. Their customers may want to understand them a little, in the way they might enjoy watching the cable show Dirty Jobs. Building owners and building tenants do not want to have to know about Dirty Jobs while doing their own work.

The PDA finally took off when it merged into phone, and its functions worked with other services. PDA came to be about managing customers, and enhancing social life, and no longer about a calendar, and an address list, and a note pad.

Advanced building integrations, including building-grid interactions, will flourish when they enhance the lives of those who use them. The electric car, and its interactions with buildings, may have great effects upon the future of our buildings. Most writings about electric cars consider them as devices that fit easily into buildings and into the power grid. Like the Newton, these descriptions are accurate as far as they go, and like the Newton's quirks, they doom the product and the concept.

Once we have more than a few electric cars in town, then those cars will be potentially the biggest stress on the grid. The peak stress on the power grid starts during the afternoon, during heat-of-the-day air conditioning and work, but it continues through the early evening. Offices are still turned on. Families are cooking dinner. The power grid is still working nearly as hard as it can.

The social needs of the electric car owner will determine whether electric cars make things better or worse. Electric cars arrive home, drained from a day of driving. What will people want from their cars next?

These scenarios all describe discretionary electricity purchases during the early evening peak. These decisions are sometimes about timing, and sometimes about how aggressive a recharging strategy to use. Electric cars will require live power pricing, by the minute, and by the day.

When we consider building-car-grid interactions outside of the home, the commercial and social interactions multiply.

Reliable Controls The consumer will never tolerate the need to make these decisions if we make them think about these problems at the level of machine-controls. The technical feat of creating amazing batteries and lightweight materials will be undone without the capability of easy interaction with the lives and aspirations of those who drive the cars.

There a lot of hopeful scenarios in which peak shaving is enabled by commuter cars plugged into office buildings. Peak shaving, initiated by what are called Demand-Response (DR) signals from the grid, is when buildings lessen their electrical demands to avoid peak periods of energy use. The story goes that we will go to work, and plug in our cars. When the DR event arrives, the building will run off the combined car batteries, reducing demand on the grid. DR is very important for today's grid, because the power supplied at the peak is the most expensive and usually the dirtiest to generate.

Cars and their batteries will never be an effective peak shaving tool for office buildings. Only an engineer ignoring people would ever think so. Let's leave aside for the moment all HR-related issues associated with employers paying for commuting costs, and look at how people interact with their work life.

If we expect electric cars to solve the DR needs of our office buildings, we must first address the issue of corporate policy, and human resources. We must be able to define all power interactions as part of enterprise awareness, of commuters, and of work schedules. Gasoline stations handle all of these social scenarios today. Electric cars will not be successful until they do as well.

Efforts to solve traditional building-grid interactions as command and control interactions will fail if they leave out the human and social factors. Such systems will become annoyances to thwart rather than tools for living. When California tried to brute force DR for homes, I saw a business plan drawn up for the Thermostat Cozy, a plug in device to make the mandated thermostat believe it was responding to DR.

High end interactions of electrical cars with the business will not be defined and written by automobile engineers, just as enterprise interactions for building systems will not be written by mechanical engineers. We need policy based messaging interactions, and process engineers will always choose low level APIs. Building system middleware will provide the bridge we need to let people-focused design come to the fore.

When I walk through the floor of any building now, I see system after system that requires too much, that have too many quirks. I keep seeing Newtons; as individuals and as an energy hungry society, we need iPhones.

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