Of Money And Mechanical Clocks: How Standardization Can Spark A Green Building Revolution

Posted on February 11th, 2011 by

by Florence Hudson

Standards play a quietly crucial role in the history of human innovation.

Money is surely among the oldest shared standards, creating a convenient unit of interchange that freed societies from cumbersome barter.

Even the standardization of time itself accelerated progress. The invention of accurate mechanical clocks made navigation at sea far safer, vastly improving speed and reliability, and sparking an era of oceanic trade and vast wealth.

Today, similar challenges face policy makers and engineers as the U.S. creates new initiatives to create a new class of energy-efficient smart buildings.  President Obama’s recent visit to Pennsylvania to announce a new plan to improve energy efficiency in U.S. commercial buildings, will highlight once again the need for new standards if we are to devise a common language to help buildings grow smarter and more efficient by communicating efficiently with their internal systems and outside partners such as utilities and regulators.

For now, the state of building automation is closer to a bazaar where traders from many lands come together, each speaking different languages, exchange data only slowly through specialized translators. Finding a common language would speed “commerce.”

In the real world of buildings, hundreds of companies have developed the sensors and software that control building systems. These range from commonplace air conditioners and lighting systems, to more specialized software systems that monitor and manage car washes or fast food fryolators. Yet however advanced these individual systems are, few of them are capable of much more than rudimentary interconnection with other building systems.

Developing a digital lingua franca capable of linking these systems offers the opportunity to better orchestrate building performance and unleash a tide of innovation. Effective standards will let green building technology manufactures standardize technology and drive down costs. Improved functionality at a lower cost is a sure fire recipe, in turn, to spur global adoption of green building technologies.

Fortunately, while the technical details of these standards are still evolving, the Internet offers a highly-evolved digital infrastructure to relay these standards once they’re set. Standards bodies including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) are focusing on Internet protocol (IP) based links to connect buildings’ digital devices and software systems.

The scale of potential gains possible from improved building management are eye-popping. In the roughly the five million industrial and commercial buildings across America, about a third of energy use is “low hanging fruit,” easily eliminated using available-today technologies, according to current market analysis. Cutting energy use by just 10% across those five million facilities translates into $20 billion in savings, benefitting customers, owners and shareholders alike.

To begin harvesting those savings, IP sensor and control networks once connected just locally are being linked into smarter corporate IT systems. Once formerly isolated building systems data is fed in real time into corporate decisions it can help lower costs, improve environmental performance, or both.

In this sense, sustainability and intelligent-energy management are becoming symbiotic. Where building automation systems were once of interest strictly to specialists in the real-estate office, richer flows of data about energy use, environmental performance, carbon emissions and the like are critical to the decision process of c-suite level executives, as well as regulators and trading partners.

The Holy Grail, of course, is real-time processing and analysis of energy and environmental performance. Executives have long had this sort of access to other key performance indicators—from financial reports, to supply chain, inventory, and sales, among others—via many kinds of highly customizable dashboard applications. Indeed, these management systems are crucial in tweaking strategy and practice day to day, to capture extra dollars of profit.

Smart building software can offer a similar sense of real-time visibility into all the countless energy and environmental behaviors—the humming and whirring, the heating and cooling, and the venting and draining—across of a portfolio of facilities. In time, an executive will be able to spot opportunities for savings, perhaps by shutting down unoccupied space, or to avoid costs by quickly modeling the financial benefits of shifting energy-intensive activities into the night.

This can work only if the data flowing between countless buildings systems is made more easily intelligible by management systems, though. Sensors will be interlinked, control software made more inter-operative, and connected to external supercomputers, municipal utility operations centers, and so on. The sooner buildings get smarter, and more interconnected, the more opportunity there will be to turn building automation into a strategic tool for managers at every level.

Florence Hudson is VP of Energy and Environment for IBM.

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