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Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings Are the Answer to California’s Brownouts

Scorching temperatures across southern California have millions of Americans dealing with rolling blackouts as the area’s electricity grid struggles to keep up with soaring demand from sweltering residents turning up the air conditioning. The Department of Energy has a solution to the problem that’s long plagued the region: grid-interactive efficient buildings (GEBs). The building technology is also one of our best weapons against climate change. 

America’s 125 million residential and commercial buildings use more energy than any other sector in the United States, accounting for 40 percent of the Nation’s energy use and nearly 75 percent of its electricity consumption. Operational emissions from building’s account for 28 percent of all carbon emissions in the world. Buildings are playing a significant role in the rolling blackouts across California and the South Western United States. 

To tackle the problem head on, the U.S. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette announced the launch of the Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems platform at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The program seeks to understand the impact and value of new technology such as electric vehicles, renewable generation, hydrogen and energy storage on electrical grids. One technology has already proven it’s value as a win-win solution for owners, utilities, and society—grid-interactive efficient buildings (GEBs). 

Retrofitting a building with grid-interactive technology allows flexibility to shift and modulate electrical loads, enhancing efficiency while protecting the integrity of the grid. Think of it as an automated negotiation between a building and the electrical grid, giving and taking in coordination with each other to protect the overall integrity of the grid. Instead of relying on people to change their behavior to prevent rolling blackouts, GEBs act as the middleman.

A recent study sponsored by the U.S. The Department of Energy Building Technologies Office found that when electricity is saved is just as important as how much is saved. That means shifting electricity usage to different times of the day through load shedding and shifting can have an outsized impact. With grid-interactive technology, buildings could reduce peak demand by 24 percent in the summer and 22 percent in the winter this year, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. Peaking demand also results in high-demand charges, where large commercial and industrial customers are charged a monthly fee based on their facility’s individual peak demand from that month. In some areas, these fees can account for as much as 70 percent of a customer’s energy bill. Being able to adjust demand during those times saves serious money. Shifting or modulating electricity demand during peak hours prevents rolling blackouts by finding ways to keep demand from peaking above unsustainable numbers. 

Reducing demand during peak hours also has an outsized impact on reducing carbon emissions. When demand is peaking, utilities turn to carbon-intensive energy supplies to balance the grid, often resorting to burning fossil fuels to keep up with demand. In those scenarios, GEBs get a signal from the utility about demand spiking, offering incentives to load shed or shift. Automated systems can then dynamically adjust the building’s electrical footprint on the grid. A study from leading sustainability non-profit the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that a portfolio that relies on demand flexibility rather than natural gas generation to balance loads produces 20 percent fewer CO2 emissions each year.

Late last year the RMI released its cost-benefit analysis for the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA), finding retrofitting the GSA’s roughly 8,700 building portfolio would unlock $50 million in annual cost savings to the GSA and $70 million in value to grid users. 

The problem is there are no programs or pilots that qualify as full-fledged GEB programs, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). While a number of state and local programs prompt similar technology, like real time energy management and automated demand response, the programs fail to combine the two. GEBs are not just about grid-interactivity nor are they solely about energy efficiency, they combine the best of both. Some programs may promote both, but prioritizing one over the other misses even greater opportunities, according to ACEEE.  

GEBs are energy efficient, with high quality walls and windows, filled with high-performance appliances and equipment. Optimized design is used to reduce both net energy consumption and peak demand, when energy prices are most expensive. Crucially, they are connected, able to send and receive signals, responding to needs of the overarching electrical grid. Using smart technology, analytics enhance energy efficiency with multiple demand response amusement. The flexibility to reduce, shift or modulate energy use protects the integrity of the grid while lowering the building’s bill. 

The technology to implement GEBs on a wide scale already exists. Advanced submetering instructure for HVAC, lighting and water systems is nothing new, but connecting the different components and managing them from a central system can be a challenge. That’s why policy makers in the Department of Energy are pushing from Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings programs to develop connectivity. New building management system using advanced AI is being tested. The General Services Administration Proving Ground and the Department of Energy’s High Impact Technology Catalyst programs released Requests for Information seeking technologies and solutions that will cost-effectively implement more comprehensive GEB strategies.

“DOE is accelerating its quest to improve the energy productivity and flexibility of America’s residential and commercial buildings,” said Assistant Secretary of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Daniel R Simmons. “We’re renewing our commitment to develop state-of-the-art building technologies that will empower Americans with more options to enhance buildings performance quickly without disruption to their lives.” 

Those efforts are especially important considering the nationwide push for electrification. Electrification policies incentivizing buildings and vehicles to go all electric are another important tool in the fight against climate change. Those policies increase the load on our electrical grids. Without proper grid management from the building sector, increased loads from electrification threaten the entire system. 

To protect our electrical grids and meet ambitious climate goals, GEBs will need to become the norm. Still in the early stages of development and implementation, more active policies to encourage adoption are needed. GEB-focused programs promote the installation of technology like advanced submetering and building automation by offering cost-sharing incentives upfront or payouts for specific efficiency targets from the utility provider. Financial incentives to retrofit or install GEB technology will get owners, utility providers and society all on the same page. With the Department of Energy leading the way, the future of GEBs looks bright. 

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