May 2009

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Michael R. LavelleEMAIL INTERVIEW - Michael R. Lavelle & Ken Sinclair

Michael R. Lavelle P.E.,
Chief Technology Officer
ENthEnergy LLC

Creating an Interactive Grid-Aware Building

 Buildings will never leave the comfort of their “energy island” mentality until each is connected over a standards-driven communication means (which could be the wired Internet or wireless carriers or a combination of both).

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Sinclair:  How are buildings connecting to the Grid today? 

Lavelle: With a few exceptions buildings are substantially operating as stand-alone energy islands. Energy costs are mostly determined by local utility tariff charges, including monthly demand charges. Even then most building operators make no attempt to minimize peak demand, even when simple demand limiting translates into an ROI approaching, in some cases, weeks or even days.

Sinclair:  So if building owners are not all that concerned about energy or demand, what’s the driving factor to change their habits in the future? 

Lavelle: This is where the cost of energy, and its availability, will have a huge impact on their thinking. Demand Response has caused a big wakeup call in certain areas of the country. And, of course, the cost of energy ($/kWh) continues to rise generally. But that’s not all. The way energy prices are moving toward a dynamic model, prices can potentially change every 15 minutes. This will be the big shock. How will building owners and operators respond to variable pricing?

Sinclair:  Is better technology needed to regulate building energy usage? 

Lavelle: Sure, but only to a certain extent. The problem is that applying a technological solution leaves out the occupant – the people who work in the buildings. As long as an emergency generator can take some of the building load off the Grid, then great. But for the vast majority of buildings, a backup generator is only that – it can keep emergency lighting on and run some critical receptacles but this still leaves the vast majority of the building occupants without a decent environment. Sure, they can get by for an hour or two but this approach is not a long-term solution. Technology can manage the process but building occupants also have to participate if a building is going to be Grid-Aware.  

Sinclair:  Where’s the incentive for tenant-occupied building owners to include occupants in a Grid-Aware building? 

Lavelle: Good point. It’s not quite there yet. But the new Green leases are changing the equation so that tenants can help manage their own space energy cost. This will mean some type of sub-metering is needed. But that’s not enough. How does a tenant manager make a decision to reduce energy – turn down the “energy knob” somewhere? No. The process is much more complicated than that.

 Sinclair:  Is this also a social issue?

Lavelle: I think so. Building people must be included in the solution for it to be successful. They must understand the issues and buy into (or perhaps not) the proposed solution. This means every building needs an energy plan and every occupant needs to have at least a high-level understanding about the plan. And the plan is more than just platitudes like “we believe in conserving energy and reducing our carbon footprint.” This won’t cut it. If a building is actively participating as a Grid-Aware building, everyone in that building needs to understand and (hopefully) join in the effort. 

Sinclair:  OK. So the problem needs both technology and social interaction to make it go. That may be a problem for the industry today. 

Lavelle: Exactly. We tend to think “what new product features can we deliver next week to solve this or that problem?” It’s easy to stay within our technology comfort zone, but the problem is much bigger than that. Look at the success of Facebook or Twitter. They have been well received because people have an opportunity to interact with one another. This is the approach we need for effective building energy management tomorrow. We need the equivalent of a Facebook to drive information not only from a building owner to the occupants but also between occupants who have information to share on this subject. And we need a Twitter-like communication for property owners, managers, and occupants to use on a daily interactive basis. 

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Sinclair:  Doesn’t this mean building environmental systems need to work better – deliver better quality air when and where they have occupants?  

Lavelle: Sure. But it means more than that. A huge number of existing buildings barely function as designed. In part this is a big opportunity for recommissioning. Air distribution and comfort problems must be fixed if buildings are to get by using less energy. This is where our modern BAS technology, capable of collecting literally millions of data points, can have a big impact. It also means that temperature control and balancing contractors should have a good run at fixing long-standing comfort problems. So this is good for the industry in general. But even this is not enough. 

Sinclair:  It sounds like a long-term smart application of technology will lead the way. 

Lavelle: Technology will have a huge impact on managing building energy. But our current thinking needs to change as we also use social networking to involve building occupants as well. And it’s bigger than this too. A Grid-Aware intelligent building needs to be prepared to receive dynamic utility pricing and automatically take appropriate control action. In many ways this is much like control methods for Demand Response. But, in fact, it goes further, much further. The problem is that running a generator or demand limiting a chiller is not a sustainable energy conservation method. It was never intended to be. The issue has more to do with energy optimization – a great expression that seldom gets applied effectively.

 Sinclair:  If I understand the issues, then, we need technology to enable a solution to better mange building energy management. And we need to involve occupants in the process while at the same time automating the process as part of an energy plan. 

Lavelle: This is a lot closer to the solution. The process will be driven by standards, like the ones being guided by NIST. The way energy cost is delivered to buildings must be standardized. Meter data needs to be available in short intervals and, in some cases, every minute for demand control. Buildings will never leave the comfort of their “energy island” mentality until each is connected over a standards-driven communication means (which could be the wired Internet or wireless carriers or a combination of both).

 Sinclair:  How do modern real-time web servers fit into the solution? 

Lavelle: We’ve got to have them. They are the first building block for any solution. We can use them to drive variable changes to individual controllers, or to change operating schedules automatically. Certainly we can embed pre-configured certain control strategies to respond to Grid availability and cost changes. But most buildings don’t have this type of modern technology. For the most part building automation systems are viewed as static installations. Contractors install the gear; setup the clock routines; make sure key variables are being passed; and send an invoice. Where are the contracts for managing energy costs or usage? BAS vendors know the value of a support contract and take care of the obvious needs of their customer – “call me if it breaks or someone complains” – and we’ll send someone out on a cost-plus basis. But this isn’t sufficient for Grid-Aware buildings. More information is needed from the BAS system. And, most importantly, we need better methods to convert raw building operating data into actionable information. This is not going to be easy. But customers will be ready to pay for a solution if it is comprehensive and backed by a reliable support team. This is the huge opportunity I see for the industry as a whole. Whether a building is on a dynamic pricing system or not, building owners will be responding to not only energy cost but also energy awareness as they look at the competitive positions they stake out in a community.  

Sinclair:  Where does this approach fit with the green building approach like LEED certification?

Lavelle: LEED is a great first step. It is changing from primarily being prescriptive to one where energy costs mean more to maintaining a certification. But LEED isn’t for all buildings, by far. The vast majority of building owners and managers are interested in the twin bottom lines: revenue and cost. Revenue depends on keeping the building occupancy up. In part this is an energy awareness and marketing issue. Energy costs, on the other hand, are well known to every building owner. What isn’t well known is just how these costs can be reduced and controlled on a sustainable basis. It won’t be free and our industry has a terrific revenue opportunity by providing effective support services.

Sinclair:  Given the need for technology, energy awareness and some type of effective sustainable energy support, how do you see this all coming together? 

Lavelle: First, no one company is going to solve this problem. It’s way too big. Second, the issues span the globe and the best solution will need input from smart people everywhere. That’s why we are setting up a Grid-Aware Open Source initiative to provide a channel for our collective knowledge into a software package that leverages real-time information; on-the-fly building operating analyses; occupant participation; and a method for creating an energy plan that provides the high-level guidance we all need to create an effective solution. It won’t be easy either. But the opportunity for an Open Source solution is here. We know how to do it. We know that contributions from around the world are important, indeed crucial, to creating a package that survives and thrives everywhere. Anto has set up an Open Source Roundtable for Connectivity Week where the opportunities and issues can be discussed. Everyone is welcome to attend and we hope to establish the guidelines of an Open Source approach that will lead the industry in delivering better operated Grid-Aware buildings.


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