The Role Of Smart Buildings In An Energy Crisis 

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The 2021 / 2022 energy crisis is one of the worst we’ve experienced in 50 years. Its impact is amplified because of the effects of the Covid pandemic, which in turn set off a series of supply chain issues that slowed down just about every technical and mechanical industry.

The recent war in Ukraine has made Russian energy sources a non-option. This means an even tighter energy supply amidst higher demands. China’s frantic importing of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from America drove up prices for many countries in western Europe, and within the U.K. in particular. Over 30 domestic energy suppliers closed their doors in the past two years.

The one bright spot within the darkness is energy efficiency metrics – particularly those of smart buildings throughout the U.K. Professors at UC London noted the positive impact of decarbonisation and sustainability on energy consumption, and urged mass-adoption of smart building principles.

So let’s talk about the role of smart buildings in the current energy crisis, and how the lessons we’ve learned can apply more broadly throughout the world.

The Statistics

36% of global energy use and 40% of energy based CO2 emissions are due to building construction and maintenance. This includes direct emissions used for heating, as well as indirect emissions related to energy production that keeps building operations running.

Needless to say, we can do better. Energy efficiency is a two pronged attack on the building problem. Firstly, a reduction in CO2 emissions means less energy and fossil fuels spent on everything from air purification, to farming / fertiliser production, to HVAC usage, to energy used in NHS operations. Secondly, the reduction in raw energy use for things like heating and air conditioning dampens peak demand, reducing strain on the grid and the cost of emergency energy imports.

Depending on how modern the climate and the age of surrounding buildings, a well designed smart building typically offers between 10% and 30% more energy efficiency than similar structures in the area. For example, Ericsson cited 25% energy savings in their 2019 smart production building. Aviva’s 2018 smart building venture resulted in an 11% electricity and 24% natural gas efficiency boost. The ACEEE smart building efficiency report can help pin down typical savings based on a building’s features.

While artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are currently making major impacts on the energy industry, the smart building industry has been leveraging these resources for years. In fact, as mentioned in this 2022 study, the industry is rapidly heading towards the next evolution of office design: The ‘cognitive building’. This next generation of smart building will not just react, and not just predict; it will reason. So strategies can be flexible, with these systems taking into account everything from daily off peak pricing to weather forecasts in their decision making processes.

The Low Hanging Fruit

Since energy usage makes up approximately 30% of a traditional building’s overhead, small tweaks can make a big difference. Even in existing buildings, smart retrofitting and tech updates can yield significant gains.

For example, HVAC automation can take a significant chunk out of a building’s energy usage. Simply by making use of smart sensors (instead of manual settings or timers), a building will be able to detect the best times to heat or cool a building. Techniques include making use of natural heat exchanges, pre-heating or cooling during off-peak hours, and creating smaller comfort zones when the building is only in partial use.

Manual task automation is another tweak that can dramatically improve a building’s energy efficiency. By making doors, windows, blinds, and vents automatic, the optimal use of natural resources can be achieved. Meeting rooms can be kept dark and cool until they’re about to be used, and then maximum natural sunlight can be introduced just prior to the room being occupied. Automatic doors not only improve HVAC usage, but also inside air quality (by keeping out pollutants, pollen, etc.) without the use of a filtering system.

One often overlooked feature that most buildings can adopt is a smart hot desking system. This can virtually increase an office’s capacity, or alternatively focus heating, cooling, ventilation, and energy consumption on smaller portions of the overall office. There’s no need to heat an entire building if only a fraction of the workers will be in on that day. This strategy dovetails well with both designated work from home days, and 4d / 10h work week arrangements.

The Result

Not only do individual tenets, property owners, and subletters benefit from smart building strategies, but conservation during an energy crisis is an overall public good. Reducing reliance on emergency energy imports, minimising strain on the grid, and avoiding brown-outs are the ultimate result of the mass adoption of smart building techniques.

The implications worldwide are massive. Population growth is still increasing, set to hit 8 billion next year. Energy efficiency must take center stage, while production and storage ramp up to meet ever-rising demands. Smart buildings will be a major source of that efficiency.

If you would like to explore the possibilities of a smart building project or retrofit, give Electracom a call. We’re happy to discuss the specific strategies that apply to your particular situation.

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