#30: Building technology



Jessica Granderson, staff scientist and deputy of research programs, Building Technology and Urban Systems Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory



We’re seeing cases where we have a real need to actually consume less energy in the evening hours and maybe more energy in the early daytime hours under certain conditions in certain seasons of the year. What that means is that buildings can be a much bigger partner to the grid if they are able to modulate their loads and their consumption according to what those supply-side needs are. That’s really the future of a lot of innovation that we’re looking at.

Jessica Granderson: Hi, I’m Jessica Granderson, a staff scientist and deputy director for research programs in the Building Technology and Urban Systems Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

JS: Jessica, thanks so much for being here.

JG: Thanks for having me.

JS: You work at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Can you talk about what you do there?

JG: Sure. I wear two hats at the Laboratory. One as a staff scientist and principal investigator for an R&D portfolio in the Whole Buildings Systems Department. There I lead a research team in work around commercial building, analytics, diagnostics, and advanced control software tools. My second hat is a management position as a deputy division director, focusing on research programs and continuity and connections across our activities in commercial buildings, residential buildings, high tech, and industrial facilities.

JS: So you’re pretty busy.

JG: We stay busy.

JS: How long have you been at the Berkeley Lab?

JG: Let’s see, I started as a postdoctoral research fellow in 2007.

JS: Wow, that’s a long time.

JG: I have to do the math, 13 years now.

JS: Wow. Right out of school then, your postdoc was there?

JG: That’s right. My graduate work was at UC Berkeley in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is right up the hill so I’ve stayed close to home all this time, and really found a good fit and long-term career opportunity at the Lab so I’ve been there ever since.

JS: Well, if it works, don’t change it.

JG: That’s right.

JS: The Berkeley Lab and the U.S. Department of Energy recently released a report, as I understand it, about four years in the making, called the Smart Energy Analytics Campaign, can you talk about that and where it came from and what came out of it?

JG: Absolutely. The recently released report, as you say, is a culmination of activities conducted over a four year period, all around proving the business case for the use of what we call energy management and information systems. Those are a type of smart building technology for commercial facilities that continuously analyze meter and sensor information and provide visualization and insights into performance improvement for building operators and facility managers.

At the start of our work, the existing state of knowledge around these technologies was built from a variety of case studies that indicated really strong potential for the technology to save significant amounts of energy with rapid payback. But the case studies were all conducted differently, sometimes from neutral third parties, more commonly from technology providers or vendors themselves. They often did not speak to the cost of the technology. The result was that it was very difficult to synthesize a generalized understanding of technology costs, energy and operations benefits, and best practices.

The result was that this high-potential emerging technology is still under-adopted in the commercial building sector.

In the work we did, we sought to, first, catalyze adoption of the technology with a broad cohort of users, organizations, from across the country. Second, to work with those organizations to provide technical assistance, so that they could gain maximum benefit from that technology through best practice application. Third, in working with these partners, to do a rigorous and thorough third-party documentation of what the result and savings were after the installation—and a really key part of the puzzle, how much were people actually paying for these information technologies and smart analytics? What did that look like in terms of installation and configuration, and what did that look like in terms of the ongoing annual costs, either from licensing, services, or in-house use?

JS: I think for most people, when we think about energy efficiency, in terms of buildings, we’re thinking about design or equipment, like LEED certification or LED lights, at least that’s what I think of, but it sounds like there’s a whole other world of how buildings are controlled and managed and that there are savings beyond what, I think, most of us are thinking about when we think about energy efficiency in buildings. Could you maybe, taking a step back, school us a little bit about what building energy efficiency is and what it entails and how that tied into this whole campaign?

JG: It’s a really good point and thank you for bringing it up. We are most accustomed to thinking about how we design low energy or efficient buildings. That’s some of the great visibility that LEED has brought to the industry. Or we think a lot about big capital intensive projects that include changing out equipment and really getting into the guts of the building and overhauling many of the systems. We also tend to be familiar with one-off component level improvements, like you say, the efficient lighting, or replacing old equipment with new equipment and getting the performance benefits that naturally accrue with system improvements over time.

In this work, and in the work that I do generally, we’re focused on perhaps a less well-known aspect of efficiency, which is, what happens in the day-to-day ongoing operation of our buildings? Most people would be, I think, surprised to know that anywhere from 15% to 30% of the energy used in our commercial buildings is actually wasted in those day-to-day operations. You may never know that systems are not turning off when they’re supposed to. You may not know that they’ve been recently serviced and are running in some different mode than they’re supposed to. You may never know that you have simultaneous heating and cooling happening in the background, because your comfort conditions are being met. That’s really what we’re focusing on with this type of technology, and in the work we do, when we talk about operational efficiency.

JS: It sounds like this kind of report is for building operators, people who are managing buildings or building buildings, not necessarily for the people occupying them.

JG: Building occupants are not typically the front end users of these technologies, that’s absolutely true. We’re talking more about the facility energy manager, the HVAC system operator, the people who you call when something goes wrong and is not working. However, the benefits extend to everyone in the building. We’ve all experienced the notoriously too cold in the summer or too hot in the winter type of environments, and the ongoing analytics and performance analysis that the technologies provide offer the operators a means to address those types of comfort-related problems that often go hand-in-hand with the energy efficiency activities.

JS: With what came out of this report, are you providing these building operators with, is it new information? Is it innovation on existing technology that’s already out there? Is this the kind of thing that people are going to say, “Wow, this is an entirely new paradigm,” or are you building on things that people are already doing?

JG: Across our R&D portfolio, we work both sides of the spectrum, from new technology development to R&D that’s focused on technology demonstration and considerations of deployment. In this particular recently concluded study, we were really providing the evidence base that could be used to shore up the value proposition for building owners or operators who are well-aware of the technology, but had persistent questions about, how do I make it work for me in my building? What is it going to cost me, all-in costs, long-term ongoing costs? How have peers in the industry been using those technologies to actually realize savings?

One important difference with these tools versus other options that we have for increasing the efficiency of our buildings is that they’re not efficient equipment in and of themselves. You don’t install an analytics technology and immediately start seeing reductions in energy consumption. These are information technologies, process tools that have a human in the loop. There’s a real interesting dimension around organizational business practices and operations and maintenance process that drives how effectively any organization or institution can make use of what they have procured.

JS: That makes sense. The technologies are there, it’s really about improving the processes around how to use them and use them better.

JG: Right, and a compelling business case on what the actual savings are, the specific insights that users are gaining that lead to efficiency improvements, and what the payback is. We have alternatives for where we choose to invest our dollars. It might be analytics, it might be something else. With this work, we give a more full picture on what that end-to-end value proposition really looks like.

JS: Talking about dollars, what are the dollar savings like? Are we talking thousands, millions? What’s the scale here?

JG: To put things in context a little bit, I’ll start big and work my way down. We spend about $150 billion a year on utility expenses for our commercial buildings annually. If you think about what that looks like, in terms of what it would mean to save 3% or 5% or 10%, that’s quite material at a national scale. The study that we worked in, or worked with, we engaged large portfolio owners, or universities and campuses, with their own more locally centralized portfolio of buildings. These are pretty big installations that we’re talking about, so I wouldn’t say that the savings scale directly to smaller, one-off single building installations.

What we saw in the study were median portfolio savings of $3 million a year across our cohort of participants. One interesting thing also I’ll note that we saw in the work was that… I’m giving you a median or a cohort wide average, and so there can be variability in what people are able to save, hence the emphasis on best practice and maximizing value. But in pure dollar sense, the median savings level from our participants was about $3 million a year for their portfolios in which they had installed the analytics.

JS: It sounds pretty huge, but when it stacks up with other kinds of optimizations that they’re doing, is this on the higher end? I know it’s going to vary by what people are implementing, but would you say these kinds of implementations are on the higher end of savings or medium end or lower end?

JG: It’s definitely more on the higher end of savings. One thing we need to consider is that often analytics are being integrated into energy management practices in an organization as one of several strategies. A critical component, but yet one of many. If you think about, I guess I would say these are more of a systems-level solution, and often if you talk about a single instance component-level intervention, you’re not going to see whole building or portfolio-wide savings at quite the level that we saw.

Specifically, we looked at a couple of types of analytics in terms of the data they processed, one being technologies that tend to ingest and analyze smart meter data at the whole building or floor level or on specific pieces of equipment. With those technologies, we saw median portfolio savings of about 3% and whole building energy reduction significant. When we looked at fault diagnostic technology that looks at heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system performance, and constantly analyzes what the problems are and what the opportunities are, those users saw median savings of 9% between the year before they installed the analytics and two years later. That’s a very strong level of whole building savings that was captured with about a two-year payback. That’s highly competitive with some of the other alternatives and solutions that we have available.

JS: You mentioned fault detection and diagnostics. This is actually something I thought was really interesting that the report talked about. These three types of Energy Management Information Systems, these EMIS’, I believe.

JG: Rolls off the tongue, right?

JS: Yes, pretty much. There are three categories, Energy Information Systems, EIS, this Fault Detection and Diagnostics, FDD, and Automated System Optimization, ASO. I just thought that was interesting, as someone who’s not familiar with building energy efficiency, that these three categories exist. Can you maybe quickly explain the differences between them and what you’re seeing maybe in the market as far as trends and uses for each one?

JG: Yes. You’re getting right into the inside baseball. I’m impressed. EMIS are these broad family of technologies that are ingesting operational and meter and sensor data from buildings and analyzing it or displaying it visually in different ways for users. You’re absolutely right that within that broad family, there are principal classes of capabilities that you tend to see delivered in the same combinations in certain offerings.

Broadly, the energy information systems are those technologies. The smart meter analytics, so looking at how much energy is being used at what time and where in the building, in terms of which floor or which systems or which pieces of equipment. The fault detection and diagnostics technologies are usually taking all of the data out of the control system. That’s the heating ventilation and air conditioning control system that you tend to find central controls in larger buildings. Those control systems are storing and logging information on what’s the status of a given valve or a damper, or is a piece of equipment in heating mode or cooling mode, or what’s the airflow and the pressures and the temperatures that they’re monitoring in order to deliver the space conditions that we’re asking them to deliver to occupants. The fault diagnostics take all of this data and run continuously to identify problems, or on the flip side of that, opportunities. That’s a whole class of technologies. Sometimes… I’ll hold off on that thought.

The optimization technologies are then bringing control into the mix. They’re pulling all of that data out of the control system. They’re analyzing it and doing some predictive optimization in order that they can push back optimized commands that improve over what the standard sequences of operation or control strategies might otherwise be. Those control optimization platforms are, let’s say, the most emerging. There’s probably fewer market offering of those technologies. It’s where I expect to see a lot of future growth.

The other trend or area of growth that I see is in some of the convergence of these capabilities. We’re seeing more fault diagnostic technologies bring in the smart meter data. We’re seeing that the optimization technologies also are running some kind of fault diagnostics alongside, to make sure that those optimized controls really are going to provide the effect that’s intended. We can maybe look forward to see some of these categories or dividing lines dissolving. I don’t know to what full extent, but we do see a convergence of some of those capabilities.

JS: How did climate change inform the recommendations in the report? I’m thinking particularly about the fault detection. I can imagine with the changes we’re seeing in weather and climate, this is something buildings are probably taking into account. Is that something that you thought about or you looked into?

JG: In this particular R&D activity, that was not a key focus, but you’re absolutely right in pointing out that… I’ll draw an example that’s been very close to home for us in California and in the Bay Area this past season, which you know, on the wildfires and the air quality issues that we were dealing with. The fault diagnostics technology is there to make sure that the control strategies that you intend to be delivering are actually functioning as intended and according to design.

When a change in condition arises, we can also use these tools to make sure that our remediation efforts are also effective. We can make sure that in the standard case, outside air we think of fresh air and something good to bring in the building. When you’re having all of the smoke and very dangerous outside air conditions, then you often want to do just the opposite. The technology can support operations staff in making sure that this is being effectively implemented across their buildings. If you think about something like a campus or a large scale, geographically dispersed enterprise, the ability to do that remotely becomes even more important and advantageous.

JS: Right. For a lot of these recommendations, you mentioned these business cases, these business uses that you looked into. How accessible are things like this to smaller businesses? Or is it the kind of thing where you have to have a really sophisticated in-house team to implement things like this? Or is this technology like a lot of other areas of our lives, becoming more and more accessible and DIY?

JG: Great question. Two dimensions that we can unpack there. One, where does the expertise and skill reside? Who can use these technologies? We already said it’s not necessarily for the commercial building occupants. So I’ll dive right in. It used to be the case that very early in analytics, it was only organizations who had sophisticated and empowered in-house staff with a high degree of expertise and knowledge who could make good use of these systems.

Over time, what we have seen is that, one, we’ve been successful in disseminating some of that knowledge. That’s a lot of what my team at Berkeley Lab supports, is the transfer and dissemination of knowledge and best practice, as far as working with commercially available technologies. We’ve seen an evolution in that regard.

The other point of evolution that’s been really fun to see and has opened the door to a broader cross-section of building and organization types to make use of the technology, is the delivery and proliferation of services. We’re now seeing third-party efficiency service providers incorporating analytics as one of the tools in their tool kits as they go provide efficiency to their clients. The other thing we’re seeing is more analysis-as-a-service so that you don’t necessarily need your staff to pour over the visualizations and the data and the reports and the output. You could pursue a model where a company monthly provides you with the report, “Here’s what you should do. Here’s what we’re seeing in your equipment.” That diversity in delivery models has really supported an increase in adoption.

The second dimension that you highlighted was building size or organizational size, and what can we do about the smaller buildings out there? Can they take advantage in the same way? So far, we’ve seen that it’s mostly the larger buildings or portfolios, probably around the 100,000 square feet and above range, that are best positioned to really maximize the benefits. In terms of when you consider the upfront costs and the magnitude of energy expenditure needed to recoup those upfront costs, or savings, and the ongoing costs as well.

What we constantly struggle with in energy efficiency is the very tough nut of how to really deliver efficiency to the small building sector. And really, that’s just a question of margins being so tight. If you look at a 50,000 square foot facility or lower, you’re really in the range of more like $10,000, $20,000, $50,000 a year energy expenditures. If you’re going to save 10% on that, all of a sudden you’re into a range where you have very little headroom to cost-effectively deliver services or efficiency with profit.

There’s a lot of R&D that we’ve collectively been pursuing over time, to think about, what are the inroads that are really going to be able to address small commercial buildings? In the in-between space, medium buildings, one-off large commercial buildings, I think there are business model innovations that can really be tapped in terms of the third-party service providers. Can they do things like aggregate facilities into virtual portfolios? Work with utility programs? A huge deployment channel for efficiency to think more about how to harness the savings across that mid-tier level.

JS: Before we started recording, you mentioned something about the intersections with resilience in health and buildings. Is there something on that, that’s worth touching on?

JG: Absolutely. By services, we really mean conditioning, the light, the heat, the cooling, the hot water heating, all of the things that we rely upon in our day-to-day activities. Health has come to the forefront, driven by a number of factors and realization that the indoor environmental quality that we provide is directly tied to the healthy conditions of those buildings.

A couple of examples. We already talked about air quality and the smoke conditions. Another thing that we’re seeing now, or currently I would say, is a lot more attention in the commercial building space as to how we ventilate our buildings and the amount of fresh air that we’re providing. How many air changes are we providing? I think that’s become important as we think about strategies for how to mitigate risk and provide the highest degree of comfort as well as assurance to occupants that conditions in indoor spaces are indeed safe. In the case of the pandemic that we’re confronting and evolving knowledge of virus transmission and what happens indoors versus outdoors.

JS: Was there anything surprising that came out of the report that you weren’t expecting?

JG: One thing, I won’t say that it was unexpected but more just fun, is the diversity and uniqueness of organizations in how they make the technologies work for them. There’s no one size fits all but there are many pathways to success. It’s just very fun to see all of the different ways that people incorporate technology into practice, and in the process, and how they roll out new technology throughout their buildings. Being able to work with over 100 organizations and see the myriad solutions that they came up with to make the technology work for them was really a very fun part of the study and something that’s always motivated me to want to learn more.

JS: Are there any examples that you can talk about?

JG: Complimenting the report, we published what we call an applications showcase. That was a compilation of highlights from a lot of our exemplary cases of campaign participants who had been recognized throughout the duration of the campaign, and mapping their successes and innovations into different stages of the technology lifecycle so that others could learn from what they had done. We also wrote lots of organizations-specific success stories to highlight the specific and unique ways that our partners were integrating the technology into their O&M [operations and maintenance] and energy management processes.

JS: That’s great. That sounds like a great resource.

JG: You also asked about resilience, and we can come back to that. Resilience, a lot of times there’s similar analogs to the whole question of efficiency and where does our mind tend to go first? A lot of times, with resilience, we’re thinking about structural resilience. We’re thinking about, we don’t want the roof to blow off in a storm, we would like our buildings to remain standing after an earthquake. A lot of structural considerations. Or sometimes we’re thinking about resilience in terms of the whole cyber dimension and making sure that our systems are robust to external threat and bad actors.

In buildings R&D, we’re looking at another aspect, which we can think of as service-level resilience. Something else that’s becoming increasingly relevant to our actual lives. When you think of, what happens when you have a power outage? What happens when you have a power outage that’s coupled with an extreme heat event? Or a fire event? Again, things that, at least here in my part of the woods, we’re becoming increasingly familiar with.

How do we leverage our building systems and technologies and power system management to be able to deliver continuity of critical services when needed? Of course, we can always run off of generators but there’s a lot of opportunity in thinking about on-site renewables, distributed energy resources, battery storage, on-site solar, and how we can manage and coordinate the power consumption of our different systems to extend the time periods where our buildings can be comfortably occupied or productively occupied, even under those cases when we may have a power loss or other stressors from the external environment.

That’s a really exciting part of new questions that are arising. You think about that, then some of the changes that we’re seeing as we incorporate more renewable energy sources into our electric grid, and that really starts to show us that there’s a huge agenda and societal benefit around making building loads more dynamic and more flexible. It ties to resilience, it ties to a clean energy grid.

JS: What does that look like right now and what should it look like in the future?

JG: I guess one way to answer that might be just to describe how things have looked historically, or the paradigm under which we’ve been operating. Which is that buildings, which for the audience sake, 70% of the electricity that we generate and deliver through our grid system actually goes to power our buildings. Buildings are the biggest load at the end of those circuits. Historically, we’ve thought of the building load as a constant that simply must be satisfied through supply-side resources. Those supply-side resources are all the traditional generation that we’re accustomed to thinking of.

As we move towards a higher penetration of renewables on the grid, our net load profiles, or how much energy we need to provide at different times of the day and in different seasons, starts to shift. You know that there are certain times of day when we have a lot of solar availability. The challenge becomes that we have, in our traditional generation, is very difficult to ramp those supplier sources up and down on the timescale of, say, hours, in the way that our net building loads are starting to change.

We’re seeing cases where we have a real need to actually consume less energy in the evening hours and maybe more energy in the early daytime hours under certain conditions in certain seasons of the year. What that means is that buildings can be a much bigger partner to the grid if they are able to modulate their loads and their consumption according to what those supply-side needs are. That’s really the future of a lot of innovation that we’re looking at. How to modulate loads more dynamically and what are the technologies that we need to do so, and some of the communications and signaling mechanisms, as well as market structures, that are needed to really deliver those kinds of solutions.

JS: So, you won an award in 2015 from C3E, the Clean Energy Education and Empowerment Initiative, of which the MIT Energy Initiative is a co-organizer, but I understand that came with a cash prize that I believe you could apply to your research with no strings attached, which sounds pretty amazing. What was it like to win that award and how did it affect your research?

JG: That award and that whole program and initiative was incredible, very inspiring, and I’m a very proud recipient of that award. I am in good ranks with many of the others. But you know what stands out to me from that—I still remember, and that was many years ago now—was the event itself and the level of energy and spark of newness and possibility that I encountered there. Whether it was from the graduate, and I believe also undergraduate, poster sessions or from the award recipients that year, or from the engagement with the ambassadors.

A lot of times we get very into the day-to-day, rote business of what we do, even when we very much love it. That was an incredible opportunity to come up out of my standard, typical networks and really engage with a very exciting group doing inspiring work. Now that’s even before we got to the cash award itself was terrific, no strings attached. I had never received one of those before. There was also just the novelty and fun of that, and quite a generous award if I might add. That was really nice to have… discretion to direct those funds to what was important to me and that I wanted to support. That could have been research or that could have been really anything, no strings attached was indeed the case. It was important to me to support some of the efforts of the programs at UC Berkeley at the time. I benefited from those as a student—go Bears!—and have served those programs myself as a mentor in different capacities over the years and maintain those connections. Being able to designate or earmark an award, for whichever semester it was to a student with the background and characteristics that I really wanted to support, was a very special thing to do.

JS: It sounds like it. I did want to mention, I think there’s a website for the campaign. I think it’s smartenergyanalytics.org. Is there anywhere else that you would recommend people go to learn about you or follow your work or see what you’re doing next?

JG: Yes, I recommend emis.lbl.gov, as well as DOE’s Better Buildings Alliance and associated information through that web presence.

JS: It’s been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for making the time. This has been a great conversation.

JG: Thank you. That was a nice conversation, I enjoyed it.


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