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Getting Started on Carbon Reduction Requires Little From Our Buildings

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After years of talk with little-to-no action, people are finally realizing that the clock is about to strike midnight for our planet. The latest IPCC report says it’s “now or never” for reducing carbon emissions, giving us only three years to limit global warming’s permanent damage. And while many governments and business leaders alike are just now setting net-zero targets, technology companies have been consistently releasing innovations to make these goals easier to hit and maintain for the past ten years. 

These public and private sector commitments signal action, but those responsible for actually making change happen may be frozen from a very human response: feeling overwhelmed. Take New York City’s Local Law 97 as an example, which requires that all buildings larger than 25,000 square feet meet specific carbon caps by 2024 or face a carbon tax. “There’s a sense of paralysis in carbon reduction even though regulations like Local Law 97 were introduced back in 2019,” said Sonu Panda, CEO of Prescriptive Data. “Buildings treaded waters during the Covid years and everyone knows the energy deadlines are less than two years away, but they don’t know where to start.”

Buildings treaded waters during the Covid years and everyone knows the energy deadlines are less than two years away, but they don’t know where to start.

PropTech companies focused on decarbonization and energy management may want to highlight their approaches for AI, algorithms, and automation, but the solution landscape is ahead of the current state of building operations, as it often is. Prescriptive Data is taking a different approach, meeting operators where they are, giving excited-but-overwhelmed teams a practical playbook for moving toward net zero. 

Step one? Understand how much energy a building consumes today as granularly as possible. For landlords and building managers on this journey, the good news is that this information often already exists within their buildings from utility bills and HVAC system performance data. Once step one is met, you can continue on the journey. 

Don’t rush to retrofit

Those feeling most anxious about meeting benchmark deadlines may jump ahead to figuring out how to pay for new equipment, hardware, or retrofits. But first, the focus should be on establishing a building’s energy baseline before any other action or investment happens. This is especially true for older, likely less efficient buildings with a longer road towards meeting benchmarks for emissions reduction. Older buildings can also potentially face future steeper fines for worse performance if nothing changes as mandates for building performance will only become stricter with additional legislation.

Even if the data set isn’t complete, a baseline reveals as much knowledge as possible about a building’s energy performance for building managers and portfolio-level leaders. Using this, the next steps can be determined to improve available metrics faster and at a lower cost than a retrofit campaign. An added benefit of understanding the baseline is that it also creates a punch list for blind spots in the building’s performance.

While older buildings may have more of an efficiency burden because they weren’t architected with sustainability in mind, newer buildings should go through the same baselining exercise. Panda cautions that they may be surprised at what that baseline reveals—or does not. “Newer buildings are outfitted with newer kits, but that hardware may already be antiquated by today’s standards. Why? Fundamentally because it is hardware that was designed for a pre-internet approach to systems monitoring and management,” he said.

Benchmark and beyond 

A visualized baseline combined with an easy process for capturing current and future energy usage lets managers and building engineers understand the rhythms and patterns of the building. This includes key energy markers like heating, cooling, and lighting. It also gives them information on important building performance metrics like anticipated emissions and helps them track progress toward any internal ESG goal or local mandate. 

Armed with this knowledge, the focus can shift to identifying both positive and negative patterns with the goals of amplifying what’s working and rethinking what’s not. For trends negatively impacting energy performance, the next steps are identifying, funding, and tracking projects to reduce or eliminate that problem over time and finding ways to use more renewable energy. 

One easy win when it comes to reducing energy consumption is understanding how occupancy fluctuates throughout the day and adjusting HVAC usage accordingly. Before the pandemic, this meant that buildings could, in theory, reduce HVAC operations during lunch hours as people left and returned to their desks. With the move to hybrid work, occupancy sensors will ensure that buildings are not wasting energy on cooling suites or entire floors that may be unpredictably at half capacity (or empty) at any given time. 

At the portfolio level, having this baseline also introduces the ability to benchmark buildings, identifying top and bottom performers and applying lessons learned across building type, size, and region. When a dashboard finally shows metrics such as energy dollars saved and emissions reduced, you know you’re headed in the right direction. The end game is running buildings that maximize efficiency without sacrificing the occupant experience when it comes to space utilization, a productive and healthy workplace, or comfort. 

Against the clock

The deadlines for actions determined by individual local mandates like Local Law 97 in New York City, BERDO in Boston, or BEPS in Washington, D.C. are fast approaching. But even if your city doesn’t have a law on the books related to decarbonization, the planet doesn’t care. The damage done by carbon emissions today will have an irrevocable impact on our quality of life today, not just in 2030 or 2050.  

Real estate investors and big-name tenants with their own ESG commitments (and for some, their own regulated benchmarks they must meet) are putting new pressure on commercial buildings to prioritize climate transparency, and reportable, meaningful action towards net zero. If regulations won’t spur action, the ability to acquire, build, and lease buildings hopefully will. 

You have to get started now to have any hope of meeting the threshold, but also so you can take advantage of compounded learning like that from the AI in Nantum OS that can apply lessons from one building to other similar buildings.

The importance of no longer procrastinating is critical for another reason when it comes to the buildings themselves and the systems monitoring energy consumption. “By nature, these systems are designed to learn. They get smarter with more data, the longer they are up and running,” said Panda. “You have to get started now to have any hope of meeting the threshold, but also so you can take advantage of compounded learning like that from the AI in Nantum OS that can apply lessons from one building to other similar buildings.”

Like most changes we need to make as a society when it comes to climate change, the sooner we act, the better. For building operators, the reason why they’re investing in carbon reduction matters less than the actual action they take, mandate or ESG commitment, carrot or stick. The good news is that the first step toward net zero is just understanding how the building is performing today and, in many cases, this isn’t far from what’s already happening. There’s no one who can do that better than the engineers and operators running the buildings, with help from some smart tech.

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