Three Considerations for the Next Wave of Smart Buildings

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Written by Fleming Voetmann, International Copper Association.

Today, 36 percent of energy use and nearly 40 percent of the carbon emissions in the world come from buildings, according to the UN Global Status Report 2017. To achieve the climate goals agreed in Paris, we must accelerate adoption of smart buildings with energy-efficient technology—and go beyond to aim for smart communities and cities.

Enabling the next wave of smart buildings requires three components:

1: Artificial Intelligence (AI): Buildings will need to reduce energy consumption beyond old and proven technologies like thermostats, refrigerators, light bulbs and insulation.

Imagine, for example, smart buildings that incorporate AI to provide a customized experience for each person—predicting human and environmental behaviors to reduce energy used for lighting, water, heating and cooling. These technologies could be implemented in office buildings, schools, hospitals, airports and private homes. Adjusting water and energy demands based on our behavior will save significant energy costs.

For building users, owners and operators, this leads to far better experiences—on top of huge savings. Additionally, the technology will run in the background, seeking constant improvement without users spending any time or changing their behaviors.

2: Demand Response and Flexibility: Given the world’s future reliance on fluctuating energy sources and distributed energy, demand response is becoming an essential tool in city resource plans. Micro-scale demand response already exists, allowing individuals to change energy consumption when energy is high—thereby incentivizing lower electricity prices. Several areas in the United States and Europe are already experimenting with demand response in an attempt to both ensure the right economic incentives and share kilowatt-hours more efficiently.

In future smart buildings, these technological capabilities will also function as fueling stations for electric vehicles and adjust their charging times based on pricing and grid capacity. The same thinking can be used for pumping water, cooling data centers, food refrigeration and more. Most needs that require electricity can be interchanged at peak energy times, saving consumers money, avoiding brownouts and increasing grid optimization.

3: Smart Buildings Powering Smart Communities: This electrification of heating, cooling and transportation is one key component of smart buildings. Beyond single buildings and single-use items, the opportunities for smart infrastructure are vast. Cities can be broken down into communities—and communities into individual buildings. So, to have smart cities, we must look at communities and find new ways of collaborating, creating large-scale synergies among energy and waste solutions.

This introduces the need for new business models. Utility companies must sell energy as a service and look beyond pushing kilowatt-hours. One industrial company’s industrial heat or wastewater can become the future heat and electricity for entire communities. For example, in Hamburg, Germany, Europe’s largest copper producer, Aurubis, provides carbon-neutral heating for new parts of the city. Using this heat will save 20,000 tonnes of COemissions per year, or 160 million kilowatt-hours annually.

Forward-thinking organizations are already developing solutions. Apple, Facebook and Google plan to sell surplus heat from data centers. The German supermarket chain, Lidl, provides charging stations for EVs in its locations in Ireland. In Denmark, wastewater treatment plants produce electricity from gasification of wastewater and optimize the pumping of fresh water based on when the wind is blowing.

Beyond the opportunities offered by technology, we need to address some fundamental global conditions. Most importantly, population growth will introduce the problem of supplying basic resources like safe food, clean water and sufficient electricity, while also ensuring the overall economic, social and environmental sustainability, to all. Smart cities can provide solutions to these challenges as well as a good quality of life for citizens, though this is possible only with the help of improved building codes and standards and clever regulation, forcing developers to invest in state-of-the-art technologies (lighting, energy efficiency HVAC, etc.). Without these components, countries with rapid population growth will lock-in to old and inefficient technology—which is unsustainable.

As we provide another billion citizens with electricity and facilitate rapid urbanization in a sustainable fashion, Europe and the United States are facing slightly different challenges: A old and inefficient building stock. The existing building stock in Europe and North America needs to be made more efficient by updating automation (saving between 8 and 22 percent of total energy consumption, according to Buildings Performance Institute Europe) and updating appliances, which needs to be done both reactively and proactively. Waiting to retrofit at the point of failure is costly, and the vast expenses negatively affect the ability to incorporate smart technology. The United States and Europe must invest in the accelerated retrofitting of buildings.

The good news, however, is that all the technology we need already exists. We need smart buildings to achieve smart cities and a sustainable future. Realizing this ambition requires smart people and smart regulation, better economic incentives and more innovation in collaboration. The key to unlocking the full potential of smart energy technology is more than just technological advancement: it is about fostering new relationships between innovators, mayors, building operators, fleet owners and citizens.

The copper industry is committed to powering a more sustainable future. Estimates show that by 2035 we will need 43 percent more copper than we use today because of increased updates in renewable energy and energy efficiency, according to Wood Mackenzie. Modern life has been built on copper and powered by copper since Thomas Edison introduced the first electricity grid—and copper is more relevant than ever.

24 September 2018

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