September 2008
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The Green Gold Rush

Promoting energy management and building automation systems as important elements in an overall sustainability initiative or green building development is both legitimate and useful.

Andy McMillan

Andy McMillan
President and CEO
Teletrol Systems Inc.
President

BACnet International

Contributing Editor

In 1849 the United States was swept up in a feverish frenzy over gold. People traveled six months or more by wagon, horse or ship to reach California and join in the great gold rush. Along the way entrepreneurs sprang into action selling things with clear value propositions, such as a glass of water for a dollar on a barren, parched section of the trail. One such entrepreneur set up a dry goods store in California where, legend has it, a passing “49er” evaluated the goods and simply said, “You should have brought pants.” From that bit of feedback the owner of the dry goods stand figured out he could make his “gold rush fortune” by supplying other fortune hunters with sturdy reliable work clothes … and so that is exactly what Levi Strauss did. Given the current “green rush” in our industry, I kind of wonder if someone could take page from Levi Strauss’ book and make their fortune selling buckets green ink (and green pixels) to the rest of us.

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“Green” is monopolizing trade publication headlines, conference titles and presentation slides. It seems like it’s the first and sometimes the only message being communicated to building owners and operators by suppliers of building automation and energy management systems. If you poke around the web you’ll have no problem finding industry websites bathed in green themes. Some are literally green while others are virtual garden spots, with photos of flowers, trees, and every manner of green growing thing. Even industry advertisements appear to have been taken over by a rainforest of plants and vegetation images that used to be reserved for wall hangings. It seems that everyone has jumped on the green bandwagon … or should I say wagon train … in an effort to mine some gold from the sustainability issue -- and to some extent for good reason. Building owner/operators care about green, even the ones who are not quite sure what it means. But we might want to ask ourselves, are there risks involved in wrapping building automation and energy management value propositions too tightly in bright green packages?

Speed Bumps on the Green Rush Trail

Promoting energy management and building automation systems as important elements in an overall sustainability initiative or green building development is both legitimate and useful. However, overstating the case by promoting them as the “answer” or even at the center of the issue risks losing credibility with the people we are trying to influence. “Green” and “Sustainable” are very broad domains that include energy issues but go far beyond them. Water utilization, indoor air quality, building materials, waste stream management, site configuration and other issues are major “green” or sustainability factors that are largely unrelated to energy management and traditional building automation systems. The reality is that we cannot deliver on the promise of a green or sustainable building on our own. Delivering on that promise requires the combined efforts of architects, interior designers, site planners, equipment suppliers and a host of other suppliers. So, we must be careful not to overstate our role or the role of our solutions in pursuit of green and sustainable buildings.

Creating New Crossroads

Another risk in over-emphasizing the “green” in building automation and controls solutions is that other important aspects of our value proposition get lost in the noise. What used to be just a building control system is evolving into an information platform based on broad collection and manipulation of data related to energy generating and consuming equipment. The wide-spread adoption of BACnet and the extensive development of legacy system interfaces to BACnet are simplifying the process of acquiring equipment and energy data from building systems. At the same time, the emergence of IT-friendly building automation systems, particularly those implementing BACnet web services is dramatically increasing the potential for application integration. This combination opens a variety of opportunities for creating value for building owners and operators that goes beyond just contributing to “green.”

Reliable Controls For example, current generation building automation systems provide opportunities for substantial improvements in facilities staff productivity. Where open, standards-based controls systems are implemented, automated asset management, fault analysis, service dispatch, and other applications can be employed to reduce the routine load on staff. They can also enable the integration of building information with other enterprise information for presentation in whatever format facilitates good decision-making. In spite of the marketing bias toward “all things green,” allowing these benefits to get lost in a sea of green ink does a disservice to our customers, and to ourselves.

Green in the Desert

Of course building automation is not the only industry segment where “green” is perhaps a little over-promoted. For example, more than 150 years after the Gold Rush, a new wave of fortune seekers is swarming through the southwest deserts. Just like the miners of old these new fortune seekers are looking for just the right bit of land – but instead of land to mine, they are looking for land to farm … solar farm that is. A tidal wave of money backed by venture funds and major investment firms is pouring into the region and it is all framed as “green.” After all, it’s solar power and that has to be green, right? But someone with a sustainable development focus might ask, “Is it really ‘green’ to replace huge swaths of fragile desert ecosystem with solar collectors?”

I don’t have an answer for the question about green in the desert, but I do believe we have more green than we need in building automation. We owe building owners and operators a realistic message about the role of our solutions in the larger context of “green and sustainable.” We also owe them a balanced message that goes beyond green to address issues such as productivity, asset management and decision support systems.

As always, the views expressed in this column are mine and do not necessarily reflect the position of BACnet International, Teletrol Systems, ASHRAE or any other organization. If you want to send comments to me directly, feel free to email me at andysview@arborcoast.com.

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