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Is the Answer to Our Buildings’ Energy Resiliency Sitting In Our Driveways?

I know eating in public has been a sin for the past few months but as my friend and I walked down a street in the Salt Lake City metro area we noticed a sign that said, “We are open for dining in.” We wanted to sit down and enjoy a meal for old times sake so we gave it a shot. My friend and I were the only ones inside the restaurant when about halfway through our meal the power went out for what appeared to be the entire building. The place had enough natural light that it didn’t disrupt our meal, but I started to listen in as the commotion began to grow in the kitchen; it’s amazing how quiet facilities can become when the humming of electronics is suddenly gone. I could hear laughter, hoots, and hollers as I watched the manager frantically pacing around trying to figure out how and why the power kicked. After only about thirty seconds of the power being off, all the employees were making it known that they were more than happy to go home for the day. 

I write about energy a lot, but I noticed that the focus of most of the conversation around building energy use has to do with efficiency. But this scenario made me realize that, while efficiency is important, to building tenants and occupiers, reliability is a much more important aspect. Power outages can affect business to a point where you have no choice but to close your doors. How is it that something as important as electrical power, something that is so fundamental to any business, does not have a higher priority of protection against sudden loss? 

For whatever reason, loss protection often comes as an afterthought. Life insurance, hard-drive backups, or even those $10 warranties on electronics I always deny when buying a gadget seem like an inconvenience at best and a scam at worst. These simple loss backstops are easy to pass on but in an emergency can be the only thing protecting us from catastrophe. The dismissiveness we have when thinking about protection often comes from inexperience. No one wakes up thinking something bad will happen to them, until it does. Even then, we often suffer from overly positive thinking, dismissing it with silly quotes like “lightning never strikes twice.” (Electricity takes the path of least resistance so why wouldn’t it strike the same place twice?!) Someone who has never been in or seen a car accident naturally might be more hesitant to pay for car insurance. Florida must be the safest place to drive your car because nearly thirty percent of drivers are uninsured and that means accidents don’t happen there, right? Likewise, 41 percent of Americans don’t plan on dying, and therefore, they don’t have life insurance. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to sell you life insurance, I’m past that phase of young adulthood. 

The same kind of positive outcome bias is also happening in building energy use. Power outages occur surprisingly more than you might think, in fact as I’m writing this article National Grid US is reporting on a power outage in New York near Albany that is affecting over a thousand energy customers. Power outages have been on the rise over the last two decades because of the demand we continue to put on old infrastructure that is trying to keep up with our exponential use, and reliance upon, energy. 

Eaton puts out their annual blackout tracker report each year which you can find here. I’ll be honest, after reading through the report some of the things are pretty scary to be confronted with like this, “Large sections of the U.S. could be left without power for months or even years should a blackout of ‘catastrophic’ proportion occur, according to a draft report released by the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) in early December.”

I’m not a conspiracy theory/doomsday type of guy, but when I read predictions like this I get the feeling that power outages might be something we want to pay more attention to, “The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that by 2040 electricity consumption will skyrocket by 28 percent, but an estimated $150 billion is lost annually to power outages. Increased reliability is vital.”

The report goes on to say, “While the U.S. has never encountered such a [mass power outage] event, experts contend it is not implausible that an outage of this magnitude could be sparked by a variety of incidents. Heading up the list is a sophisticated cyber-attack causing severe physical infrastructure damage—a threat that has already emerged as one of the biggest worries among IT professionals. Other causes for concern include attacks timed to follow and exacerbate a major natural disaster; a large wildfire, earthquake or geomagnetic event; or a series of closely timed events that collectively create significant physical damage to the nation’s infrastructure.”

Now, that we know the impending electronic doom that could be upon us, let me address how we can prepare to keep our buildings and businesses up and running during power outages. Traditionally, you would pay for a diesel generator, or a battery bank stored somewhere in your building. These are great methods and will get the job done, but they have one use only and as I explained before, people are not keen on making purchases for items for the big “what if” moment. Instead, how about we use the most powerful mobile battery systems all across America today. You might have it sitting in your driveway right now. 

 OSSIACO is a provider of residential solar power, electric vehicle charging, and smart home and customer-centric utilities. Recently they released dcbel, an electric vehicle (EV) supercharger with blackout protection all in one package. The dcbel will charge your EV as well as return that charge to power your home or office when you need it allowing you to always be prepared for blackouts. 

This idea is ideal for businesses with vehicle fleets. Phasing out your internal combustion vehicle fleet to an electric vehicle fleet that can then be charged from your space but also return that power during times of a blackout eliminates the need for a separate battery bank or diesel generator. This energy relation between EV and building has additional benefits such as allowing you to bypass peak energy hours all together by using the vehicle to provide building power during those times. 

EVs such as the Tesla Model 3 (the affordable one) equipped with a 75kwh battery would be capable of microwaving about 2,300 hot pockets. Combine that with a couple more EVs during a power outage and you will be equipped with a pretty darn good amount of electricity. The storage potential is only limited to the amount of electric vehicles you want and need. During a blackout period, it’s even possible to have vehicles drive to charging stations and then bring that power back when you start to run low.

As great as using an electric vehicle to power a building may sound there are also some areas of concern that should be considered. Life expectancy of vehicle batteries would diminish significantly if being used every day in powering a building. What was an eight to ten year life expectancy could easily be cut down to four years or even less. Even lithium batteries used as a standalone for solar integration or just battery backup systems are not any better than electric vehicles when used in this manner, most only offering a five year warranty and then diminishing replacement discounts for each year following. 

Short life expectancy leads me to wonder if lithium batteries are the best bet for energy and environmental efficiency. By looking for means to become environmentally friendly we have replaced coal, oil, and natural gas mines with lithium mines that are essential with our current renewable technology. Amit Katwala said it best, “Here’s a thoroughly modern riddle: what links the battery in your smartphone with a dead yak floating down a Tibetan river? The answer is lithium—the reactive alkali metal that powers our phones, tablets, laptops, and electric cars.” Lithium batteries are a short term fix to a longer term problem. Problems occurring from lithium mining are under-reported and are a topic out of my realm of expertise, but it’s worth looking into all avenues. Global trends are clearly leaning towards the use of lithium batteries, and there are ways to financially benefit from the growing trend by incorporating tax incentives.  

Tax incentives run wide for vehicles in business, especially electric related. EV tax credits vary depending on the model of car purchased and a company’s tax circumstances, some buyers can receive up to $7,500 in EV tax credit. According to Mike Albert Fleet Solutions, one of the top ten fleet management companies in the U.S, “In addition to lucrative EV tax credits, some states offer even more money back should you install an EV charging station at your business or home. Local utility services may also offer credits or discounts for using an EV and installing a charging station.” To find the specifics for your area check out The U.S Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center.

In addition to federal incentives, almost every state provides local tax incentives for EVs as well. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) provides rebates of up to $2,000 for the purchase or lease of a new eligible Plug-in Electric Vehicles. Also in New York, an income tax credit is available for fifty percent of the cost of alternative fueling infrastructure, up to $5,000. Qualifying infrastructure includes electric vehicle supply equipment. Unused credits may be carried over into future tax years. The credit expires on December 31, 2022. The U.S Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center that I mentioned earlier is a fantastic site for looking up tax incentives for your state, so don’t feel left out if you don’t live in New York. 

Electric vehicle production is on the rise, and there is a great opportunity to utilize the benefits that can come from EV’s and Building’s relationship. Using electric vehicles as a means to store building energy and manage energy usage is a step towards the future of facility management. Aside from all the financial benefits, it’s responsible. Just as having a stack of wood for the winter 150 years ago. Being self-reliant and prepared not only protects you and your employees. The community benefits from having prepared individuals during times of natural disasters, pandemics, and civil unrest. The first step is putting your oxygen mask on before you can help your neighbor. 

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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