Déjà vu is the experience of perceiving that something new has happened before. It is commonly mentioned in comparisons of the electric utility industry with the old Bell Telephone system of a quarter century ago. Hence my sense of déjà vu upon hearing, “The biggest enemy is inertia,” commonly lamented by building automation and building energy management vendors when describing their solutions at IBcon 2013. It was previously used by software vendors describing the challenge of selling software to optimize workforce schedules in contact centers.
That speaks volumes about the immaturity of the market for building operations systems and its trendlines. These solutions are evolving as the market matures. Current solutions have dashboards that display very useful data about when electricity is consumed, and sometimes what is consuming it. Organizing data with simple graphics sounds so simple, but this level of automation can be enormously instructive for a facility manager who now can see that an errant HVAC (heating/ventilation/air conditioning) unit starts up at 3AM in an uninhabited building. That’s an unnecessary electricity load, and fixing it directly impacts the net operating costs of that building and improves the life of that asset.
Advanced capabilities such as predictive analytics are just getting a toe-hold in commercial real estate via applications like condition-based maintenance. This mirrors the path that electric utilities are treading, as they move from basic monitoring of assets to more sophisticated data correlations that identify proactive maintenance rather than the “run to failure” practices of today. Truly transactive capabilities that engage buildings as grid prosumers are further on the horizon.
Demand response (DR) vendors will incorporate some transactive capabilities into their solutions in the form of production of negawatts (reductions in electricity use). However, participation by buildings in a transactive energy market will require solutions with correlated analytics about weather, tenant occupancy, and how building space is used, among other things. In the not-too-distant future, buildings will function as microgrids, configured with generation capabilities and energy storage assets to produce some, if not all, of their electricity needs in response to market price signals. Buildings may also collaborate together on energy production and consumption in aggregated environments and conduct transactions between themselves rather than with an electric distribution utility.
But the first step is that successful building operations solutions must deliver tangible benefits to the bottom line and intangible benefits in the form of tenant experience. Today, tenant experience is mostly defined by building comfort and safety. After all, a building occupant should not find his or her health compromised by a building’s environment, or their physical safety threatened by a failure to secure doors or provide adequate lighting for safe passage. However, some vendors noted an intangible, values-based driver surfacing into their sales conversations with prospective facilities managers and property owners – the desire to do good by reducing carbon footprints.
Sometimes this desire is actively driving facility owner decisions to deploy solutions that save energy and deliver an ROI within 18-24 months. In other cases, it was the building tenants themselves who drove interest and participation in DR activities, and frankly didn’t care if it meant their work environment would be a degree warmer when their building participated in a DR event.
So how can vendors overcome inertia? The way workforce management vendors succeeded was through persistent education of prospective buyers that identified an array of benefits that covered tangible bottom line impacts (improved agent productivity, reduced time revising schedules) as well as intangibles (improved worker satisfaction and increased morale). In the markets where it counts, vendors of energy management and building operations solutions need to develop messaging that will appeal to building owners and to the building occupants to achieve success.