An intelligent approach to intelligent buildings

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Buildings in tomorrow's cities will share data on energy usage to improve efficiency. [R. Halfpaap/Flickr]

What are intelligent buildings, why are they important and how can we realise their full potential? Christiane Egger takes a closer look at the growing market for intelligent buildings.

Christiane Egger is responsible for international projects and green energy at OÖ Energiesparverband, an organisation that provides information on energy usage.

Recent research forecasts that the European market for energy efficient building products and services will double over the next seven years, from the €41.4 billion spent in 2014 to €80.8bn in 2023.

This is encouraging news, especially since intelligent buildings have the potential to be one of the most important tools countries can use to meet their Paris Agreement commitments. So it’s important that we work out how to support and direct the market as it grows.

Of course, the first step is to be very clear about what we mean by the phrase ‘intelligent buildings’ –they’re more than just energy efficient shells, running on on-site or grid-based renewables (though that’s certainly an important part of the equation). Rather, intelligent buildings are systems consisting of an efficient building envelope and renewable energy supply that combines a series of digital technologies and services to deliver further efficiency gains in a user-friendly way.

All of these elements – efficiency, user friendliness and digitisation – are crucial to making a building intelligent. A simple example: an office building might be automated such that the blinds close at certain times during the day to prevent overheating. But without giving inhabitants the ability to override this system – such as if they’d like a few minutes of sunshine – the building isn’t truly intelligent.

Intelligence comes when the building allows for this override and then reverts back to the automated system after a set time – striking the right balance between maintaining efficiency and providing a comfortable environment for its inhabitants. It is important to make the users part of the building’s intelligence – by creating an understanding of the “why and how” and how building automation can work for them.

Balancing for better

It’s through striking this balance between digitalisation and user friendliness that real energy savings can be made.

And these savings are substantial. Europe’s buildings account for 40% of energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions in the EU. Making these buildings intelligent, and then linking them together to better manage supply and demand across the network, would be a tremendous step forward on our journey towards a smart energy future.

It’s not just homes and offices that would benefit. Many industrial buildings run up significant bills on heating alone. Intelligent management of this energy could free up revenues for industry to grow both faster and in a more sustainable way.

And we can even think beyond buildings towards another major sustainability concern. Intelligent buildings supported by substantial on-site generation will provide power surpluses – surpluses that intelligent drivers will use to charge their intelligent cars.

So what seems like a single simple development can turn out to be the key to addressing many problems.

But we’ve still some way to go until this can happen and, as with any major change, there are a number of potential pitfalls on the road ahead.

Solving services

One key challenge is attitudes. Intelligent buildings are systems of technologies and services that work together in tandem to balance the dual needs of efficiency and user friendliness. But many people in the building industry still think of efficient buildings as a sum of products and technologies, such as high-efficiency windows, insulation or renewable energy technologies.

This needs to change. An intelligent building relies on a number of services to remain intelligent. These can range from routine maintenance to ensuring that the different products within a building can work together to become a fully-fledged system. Industry and government have some work to do to support these service providers.

What is needed are business models which are based on delivering energy efficiency and cost savings in buildings – both in construction and renovation of buildings but also in their operation – and here new business models have a key role to play.

Intelligent buildings mean a whole new way of managing building energy. And this becomes even more complicated once buildings start connecting – buying and selling energy in real-time across the grid. Such services may address heating, electricity and mobility needs and could combine on-site renewables, such as PV, biomass heating and CHP systems, solar thermal as well as electricity and district heating grids.

Not only large players in the building and energy market have a role to play in this new energy system: empowering craftspeople to sell and deliver such services is another key issue. Take a household electrician for example – it’s one thing for them to do the wiring but the customer would benefit so much more if they sold a smarter solution and serviced it. This could include a PV system, a charging station for the electric car and a smart home system to monitor and manage the efficiency of the whole system. This is vital since a smart building isn’t smart at all without the services to make it a system.

Also, the sector has a communications job to do to increase demand for services. At the moment people are willing to pay for products but most householders might view energy services as an expensive extra.

Regulation has a crucial role to play in guiding the development of these models to enable as many businesses as possible to be as successful as possible.

Directives in the right direction

Fortunately, Europe is making moves in the right direction. The current European Buildings Directive already set the goal that all new buildings must be “nearly zero energy buildings” by 2020 and building codes are adapted towards this standard. Building energy performance certificate systems are in place in all member states which describe the energy standard in a standardised way. The European Energy Efficiency Directive supports the establishment of energy efficiency service markets. The Ecodesign Directive has been key in reducing the energy demand of numerous products.

This is a good basis for the next step towards intelligent buildings energy systems. New policy initiatives are expected for the coming months which should also help shape the markets in this direction.

Changing approaches like this explain the optimism surrounding the prospects of intelligent buildings – as we edge ever closer to a world of buildings, which are not just energy efficient but energy intelligent too.