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Grid-Interactive Buildings are Key in Fight Against Climate Change

When most people think about major contributors to climate change, the image that comes to mind is a coal-fired power plant. The burning of coal accounts for 46 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and is often cited as climate change enemy number one. But in the past few years, there has been increasing focus on another top climate change factor, commercial buildings. Fossil-fuel combustion connected to residential and commercial buildings accounts for roughly 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. If the world plans to reach the Paris Climate Agreement targets to limit the rise of global temperatures this century to below two degrees Celsius, it’s clear the global built environment must become much cleaner and energy-efficient.

Carbon dioxide emissions from commercial buildings hit record-high levels in 2019, according to the Global Alliance for Building and Construction. That’s partly because there has been a shift away from the direct use of coal, oil, and biomass towards electricity to power buildings, but electricity has had higher carbon content because of the high proportion of fossil fuels used in generation. Many property owners are taking note of building climate change impacts because of growing environmental and energy-efficiency regulations targeting CRE. Fortunately, a significant boom in new technologies will help tremendously in pursuing net-zero emissions for commercial buildings that’ll help fight climate change and also lower energy bills.

There’s currently a significant push in real estate for what’s called grid-interactive efficient buildings (GEBs) that make buildings into clean and flexible energy resources. “Grid-interactive efficient buildings are designed to avoid the high costs and disruptions associated with peak demand and grid stress,” said Kelly Speakes-Backman, Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy (DOE). “Through clean, on-site power generation and cutting-edge efficiency measures, we can massively reduce the carbon footprint of the buildings sector.”

Grid-interactive buildings take a holistic look at how a commercial building uses electricity and, potentially, produces its own energy. They do this by shifting energy loads to take advantage of cheaper renewable energy by moving demand to times of the day when cleaner energy is more available. Energy load shedding allows building managers to cut demand on the electricity grid during ‘peak hours,’ improving grid operations and lessening the need for climate-change-unfriendly burning of fossil fuels. With grid-interactive systems, buildings also aim to generate their own power, like through rooftop solar panels, which can slash energy bills and reduce the need for more power plants in the future. And, of course, increased use of energy-efficient technologies, such as optimizing lighting and HVAC use, cuts electricity use and carbon footprints.

DOE has high hopes for grid-interactive buildings and says national adoption of GEBs “could save hundreds of billions in dollars in power system costs, reduce carbon emissions, and relieve stress on the grid.” Energy resources in buildings, such as solar panels, battery storage, and demand response, are typically implemented and managed separately. DOE’s vision for grid-interactive is to integrate all these systems. A well-run GEB uses analytics and controls to optimize energy use for occupant comfort, utility prices, weather forecasts, and available on-site energy generation and storage.

New technologies that are making GEBs possible are available today for building owners and managers, and they keep getting better and more advanced. One company deploying this type of tech is BrainBox AI, a Canadian firm that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to optimize building energy consumption. BrainBox’s software systems use deep-learning, cloud-based computing to autonomously optimize building systems, like HVACs, in real-time to deliver maximum energy savings and reductions in carbon emissions.

BrainBox’s proprietary tech is the type of stuff science nerds dream of. The company’s AI engine changes HVAC systems from reactive to fully autonomous in three steps. First, it connects to a building through one of three integration options and collects and maps out large volumes of HVAC data. After sorting through the data, the system draws on external sources of information, such as weather forecasts, utility tariff structures, and occupancy rates. Equipped with all this data, the AI engine can then predict with 99.6 percent accuracy the future state of each HVAC zone in a building, and then it can fully optimize strategies to manage temperature settings. Once the AI engine is up and running, it works 24/7 to autonomously run the HVAC system in real-time, maintaining occupant comfort levels while also reducing energy use and carbon footprint. The AI engine continues to collect data and, over time, becomes even better at analyzing HVAC trends and optimizing the system.

“We use the analogy of a self-driving car sometimes when talking about the AI engine system,” said Omar Tabba, Chief Product Officer at BrainBox AI. “It becomes a self-driving system. It’s able to observe the weather and the building behavior and what is possible, and then make a decision on the analysis and predictions.”

With new tech from companies like BrainBox AI, Tabba added that it’s possible to manage energy consumption at the grid level that wasn’t feasible before. “We can coordinate multiple buildings, maybe even hundreds of them, to perform certain grid-level functions to shift or shed energy loads,” he said. “This is an excellent example of how everyone in the electricity supply chain benefits. There are user benefits because of lowered costs and CO2 emissions, and there are grid benefits because they’re able to satisfy more electricity demand, more reasonable costs, less carbon footprint, fewer blackouts, and more grid resilience.”

Managing buildings at the grid level will be important, as Tabba said, but there’s still work to be done. More utilities across the nation are adopting policies that promote grid-interactive buildings, but there are still barriers to full integration of energy efficiency tech and energy demand flexibility, according to a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). For example, some utilities have programs for automated demand response that send signals to buildings to reduce energy loads. Other utilities have policies that provide incentives for buildings to implement energy efficiency measures. But ACEEE says there are currently no utility programs that are integrated into a complete ‘grid-interactive’ program.

Research from the DOE is currently laying the foundation for cities and states that could require, through building codes, grid-interactive policies for all new building construction, according to the National Buildings Institute (NBI). GEB policies and building codes would go a long way in transforming the nation’s electricity grid to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy, NBI said. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from commercial buildings will be critical in helping the world meet Paris agreement climate goals. For property owners and managers, you can expect to see increasing regulation on building energy usage and benchmarking that’ll compel you to up your energy-efficiency game.

New technologies, such as those from BrainBox AI, can help tremendously in lowering commercial buildings’ energy consumption, emissions and also in the transition to grid-interactive. Instead of simply drawing power from the electricity grid, a grid-interactive building is dynamic enough to continuously manage energy demand in response to its utility. The adoption of GEBs nationwide could potentially lead to carbon emissions savings equivalent to retiring more than 50 midsize coal plants and taking 17 million cars off the road by 2030, according to a recent analysis by the DOE’s Building Technologies Office. As a commercial building owner, you may think of dirty coal plants and fuel-guzzling SUVs as the biggest climate change contributors. But the world’s built environment is a substantial global warming factor, too, and building owners will increasingly be in the spotlight in the fight against climate change.

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