Smart Buildings for the Smart Grid Need Smart Policy

Buildings consume an extraordinary amount of energy in the USA.  Commercial, industrial, or residential expend their energy in different categories, but numerous studies have shown that energy efficiency and intelligent building technologies reduce energy bills.  Not only that, but smart buildings can have a strong multiplier effect in terms of shifting expenditures from utility bills to other investments, including job creation for improved economic security.    

But what exactly is a smart building?  Is a residential building smart if it has a home energy management system?  Is a commercial building smart if it has been retrofitted with energy efficient windows and better insulation?  Is it a net-zero building – meaning a building that is so energy-efficient that its electricity needs can be supplied with onsite renewables generation.  The definition of a smart building is more difficult to define than the Smart Grid itself.  For the Smart Grid, the simplest definition is the bidirectional flow of information and electricity.  But the definition of smart buildings is more complex and complicated.   It is complex because buildings have different occupant uses and energy use patterns.  It is complicated because building energy use is contingent not only on the amount of intelligence inside the four walls (lighting controls, occupancy sensors, etc.), but on the intelligence of the design, materials, and construction of the four walls too.  In other words, its energy efficiency.

For starters, let’s consider that a smart building has some ability to recognize its internal and external environments and take actions, with or without occupant intervention, to reduce energy use based on these environmental variables.  The most common variables include internal building temperatures and outside temperatures, and the amount of natural daylight or time of day/night.  Heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC) and lighting are typically the two biggest energy uses in both commercial and residential buildings – and directly influenced by weather and time.  Home energy management systems (HEMS) offer monitoring and control of selected devices for residential buildings, and like energy-efficient lighting, are gaining a toehold in new and retrofit markets as more homeowners adopt solutions to reduce overall energy bills.  Commercial buildings have a longer timeline of energy management experience, and there are new entrants with relatively sophisticated offerings to help existing and new building stock manage lighting, plug loads, small data center, and HVAC expenditures. 

The effectiveness of these actions, however, is greatly influenced by the building envelope –comprised of roof, walls and windows.  The most impressive energy management system has limited benefit in a building with single pane windows, inadequate insulation, and inefficient incandescent lighting – extreme energy inefficiency.  One strategy to address this challenge is the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2011 introduced in May by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).   It creates a national energy efficiency strategy that “can make our economy more competitive, start addressing our nation’s energy challenges, and create private-sector jobs today.”    That last benefit is especially welcome news for the US economy.  This bipartisan bill would move the USA forward to the goal of a unified energy policy, something that is sorely needed for energy, economic, and environmental security. 

Sadly, the same Congress that can propose this type of farsighted policy is also capable of producing H.R. 2417, the BULB Act, which wants to repeal energy efficiency standards for light bulbs.  Trotting out the same tired old arguments (kills jobs, increases costs) that have been used about seat belts, emissions controls, fire safety standards and so on, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas, infamous for his apology to BP for the trouble the federal government put them through for a massive oil spill), ignores facts in favor of fiction, and ignores the arguments of lighting manufacturers in favor of a couple of talking heads.

Smart buildings require intelligent management systems plus energy efficiency standards.  Smart buildings are an important part of the overall Smart Grid because they help reduce electricity requirements especially during peak demand timeframes.  Let’s hope that we get smart policies that move us forward to energy, economic, and environmental security, and not more insecurity as formulated in the BULB Act.