new energy future

21st century grid heralds a new energy future

Buildings professionals are positioned to lead and shape the transition
Friday, August 3, 2018
By Sheila Hayter

Electricity powers modern life — our work, our homes, our schools, our healthcare facilities. Buildings are the electricity sector’s number one customer, and the electricity grid is an engineering marvel. But the model for the electrical grid is about 100 years old.

Generally, power plants generate electricity in large quantities at only about 30 to 40 per cent efficiency. They are usually located very far from loads, so electricity travels great distances over transmission lines — introducing more inefficiencies in the system — and the whole system is designed for one-way flow of electricity from power plant to loads.

The current grid also influences what we do in buildings. Electricity is a big expense, so we design and operate buildings to minimize that expense. We tend to think of a building as a box connected to the grid by a feed from the electricity provider. We drop equipment into the box and put it all together to make the building work to meet client expectations.

I’m happy to say, we are really good at the box. Given the way the current grid works, the box is the right way to go, but we need a 21st century grid and 21st century buildings.

So what will a 21st-century grid look like?

  • Technologies will change and we will see distributed energy resources, like solar and wind systems, that are integrated with improved and less-expensive battery storage and microgrids.
  • Electricity flow will be bi-directional, not just one way.
  • Individual building owners and third-party providers will own generation. Your building-owner client might decide to get into the electricity business.
  • The grid will work with the Internet of Things. These are devices in buildings that communicate via the Internet and have an impact on electricity loads.
  • To handle all this, buildings and the grid will have to get smarter. We will transition to a future of smart buildings that play a dynamic role on a smart grid. And, we’re going to have to do that without compromising the health and wellness of the built environment.

Arising and competing interests

If the electricity sector is going to transition to a smart grid, we better learn more about it. If the building profession is going to be a bridge to a new energy future, we have to get engaged. We are the buildings experts. We have the most knowledge about, as our mission states, serving humanity and promoting a sustainable world.

All these changes will have an impact on the future of building design, construction, commissioning, maintenance and operation. Your building-owner clients may shift from being just building owners to also being providers of electricity and other energy services.

There are, and will continue to be, many other businesses and entire industry sectors out there that recognize the opportunities in the energy changes now underway and that are expected to expand in the near future. Think about it. We have big players in the technology sector making their way into home automation and controls — heating and cooling, lighting and electronics. We have big players in the technology sector making headway with energy storage and solar PV. The utility sector has been working on issues related to distributed energy resources (solar, wind, battery storage, microgrids) and the smart grid for several years.

Data will be the golden key in our new energy future. Any company with an interest in data is already thinking about this energy future. These industries see opportunities in how energy is generated, distributed and stored, and they are starting to mobilize to take advantage of these changes for their own benefit.

If buildings professionals aren’t part of the research, development and policy changes, or the conferences, meetings and conversations, we will see other industries setting things up for their own benefit. And, what they decide and do may, or may not, benefit the buildings industry. It may, or may not, benefit our clients. And, it may, or may not, benefit building occupants. If we don’t become aware and get engaged, the essential, critically important role we play in the buildings industry could change dramatically.

Serving building occupants

As we consider all the changes coming to both the electricity and buildings sectors — the challenges and the opportunities — we must not lose sight of the fact that buildings are built for people. Buildings serve people, not the electrical grid.

The best building design, construction and operation will achieve two important goals. First, they will ensure occupant safety, wellness and comfort. And, second, they will become a dynamic partner in a new electricity sector.

The building that was designed yesterday will have to evolve to meet the design requirements of tomorrow. The building professionals who know how to create and operate grid-responsive buildings and also excel in delivering IEQ are the practitioners whom building owners need today and in the future.

The new energy future will challenge current notions of building design, construction, commissioning, maintenance and operation. If you start now to develop the solutions to these challenges, you’ll be ahead of the curve, and your competition.

Our new energy future could also be good news for the developing world. Instead of being faced with the burden of developing a 20th-century grid infrastructure, these areas may be able to leapfrog technology development. In areas where development is under expansion, any new capacity will reflect the future, not the past. If we start now to lead the way with training, guidelines and standards applicable to the new energy future, instead of the past, we have the potential to support truly positive development and to be even more relevant across the globe.

Sheila Hayter is a professional engineer and group manager with the Integrated Applications Center at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado. She was installed as President of ASHRAE for 2018-19 at the Society’s annual conference in June. The preceding article is excerpted from her address.

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