We Have Smart Phones, Why Not Smart Buildings?

I love the scene in the movie I Robot where an actor tries to adjust the volume of a 1970s stereo system. She gives it verbal commands and is frustrated by the stereo’s lack of response. She then pokes it in search of the home page as if it were an iPad. Then, Will Smith comes over and turns the control knob to off!

That scene always reminds me of how dumb buildings are. Slabs of wood and stone with machinery that requires humans to turn them on and off.  Yes, some of us have smart thermostats and programmable lights. Less dumb, but not smart.

Our cars are so much smarter than our buildings. The average car has 40 or more computer chips. The cost for car electronics as a percentage of a vehicle’s total cost has grown from 18% in 2000 to 40% today. I cannot image driving a car that doesn’t alert me when I am too close to something or that unlocks when I near the door handle. Just around the corner looms a future where cars will be smart enough to drive themselves.

Moving our buildings from dumb to smart will enhance human and environmental sustainability. Why? Buildings emit about 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The indoor air quality in most buildings is inferior to the outdoor air quality. That is bad business. A Harvard study found a 50% difference in cognitive ability between people working in less clean indoor air versus cleaner indoor air.

Today, the economics for converting dumb buildings into smart ones is still searching for its bottom line justification. That is about to change as solar power, batteries and load management systems begin to deliver disruptive energy cost savings.

Tesla just announced a new patent for a distributed electricity management system. The system’s promise is an optimization to the end use appliance, battery or solar panel. Tesla’s vehicles can do this now, though few car owners notice it, by varying the vehicle’s charging flows to the building’s or grid’s current electricity capabilities.

Tesla’s PowerWall system now comes with two underutilized “gateways” that allow a utility to signal a building and a building to signal the utility. While designed to optimize the flow of electrons they could become a marketplace platform between willing buyers and sellers!

Leaping into the near future, companies like Tesla’s are creating the technology path toward smart buildings connected to a smart grid. In this future, the smart grid now has the functionality to operate like a stock market. A smart building will be able to, in real time, decide the least cost between options that include buying from the grid, self-generating, drawing down stored electrons from the building’s battery system, or reducing an end use appliance’s demand without sacrificing human comfort or productivity.

The grid, in turn, has the real time ability to communicate its best price from a utility’s power plants, competing electricity supplies from other smart buildings seeking to sell rather than buy, or by offering demand reduction prices to smart buildings and then using this “saved” demand to serve the demand of a building wanting to consume. The bottom line is a system where a smart building will look like an iPhone rather than an old rotary dial phone.

The ultimate smart building will not only achieve economic sustainability but will also sustainably enhance the human experience.  The smart building’s installed technology will already be paid for through energy economics. The incremental cost to install smart technology that impacts human performance will be marginal. The impacts, though, will be disruptive.

For example, biometric health monitoring of building occupants will become the norm. Air temperature, humidity and quality will be optimized at the individual and group occupancy levels. The buildings will anticipate and respond to occupants just like Siri today suggests to me a timer setting as I begin to grill food. How Siri knows I am about to start grilling is beyond me. But it is pretty cool that this AI has figured it out. That same productivity enhancement will excite customers and empower work associates in tomorrow’s smart buildings.

 

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