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Ludovic Deblois' Column - Connected Buildings that Make their Own Energy

Smart buildings are sprouting up in cities all over the world. Why? Because they solve energy issues as well as the growing demand for connectivity.

As a result, the construction and renovation industry has once again become a minefield of opportunity both for traditional companies and start-ups in services, IT, and connected devices. This trend is pushing industry players to reinvent their USPs and offers a wellspring of creativity for architects.

The reason for this unprecedented growth is the essential quest for energy self-sufficiency. There are several reasons for this. First, countries with few fossil fuel reserves have seen their ‘energy bills’ reach colossal levels. For example, European Union countries together spend more than € 1 billion a day — € 400 billion per year — on fossil fuels, oil, and gas (1).

Second, energy security is a key concern in the current tense international climate. The European Union depends heavily on the rest of the world, since it imports 53% of the energy it consumes (2). If we look at natural gas, 27% of European consumption comes from Russia alone.

Locally-Produced Energy to Solve these Challenges

Moreover, commitments to reduce greenhouse gases mean countries are pushing companies in that direction. In the housing industry, for example, norms for new buildings require high levels of energy efficiency. But existing buildings rarely meet these standards and so we lose out: high power bills, dependence on geopolitics, and poor environmental results.

New strategists have understood the benefits of energy independence for our societies, so that we can face the future with serenity. How does this vision work in practice? By generating energy on-site with a mesh of multiple power sources, usually renewable energy. The quest for energy independence is therefore inseparable from energy efficiency. In buildings, making energy locally is the best way to solve this challenge.

Why are buildings an excellent starting point? Simply because energy can be both produced and used where it’s needed, helping make housing, offices, and infrastructure, as well as local applications (blinds, smart windows, home automation, lighting, etc.), energy independent. The energy produced can then be distributed via a local micro-network in order to better meet multiple needs. In France, people whose homes have solar panels can already sell the surplus back to the grid and share it with their neighbors. In recent months, several utility companies have even offered their customers self-consumption contracts, which the law now allows.

Wind Trees, Geothermal Energy, Wind Turbines…and BIPV

European institutions are encouraging this trend with regulations that push industry players to build passive or even positive energy infrastructure. Each European country has its own method of achieving these targets. In France, starting in 2020, all new buildings must be positive energy. In Switzerland, the Minergie certifications require high levels of energy efficiency as well as renewable energy (3).

In reaching these targets, all sources are good, whether wind, geothermal, or solar. Recent innovations have been developed in micro-wind turbines, such as the Wind Tree, from the NewWind company or for streetlights from the British company, Own Energy Solutions (4). They generate electricity right where people live. Vast projects have also been designed such as eco-districts, using geothermal energy that meets a significant part of energy needs (5).

If we move from the neighborhood scale to the building, solar energy is most promising with the explosive growth of the BIPV market (Building-Integrated Solar Photovoltaics). This market was $ 3 billion in 2015, is projected to reach the $ 9 billion mark in 2019, and should account for $ 26 billion by 2022 (6)! In BIPV systems, solar cells are not only on the roof but also on the façades. For buildings over three stories high, solar is even required to reach passive or positive energy building targets.

The Growing Need for Connectivity

Generating energy locally is a great start, but achieving energy independence also requires integrated design that takes into account insulation and energy efficiency as well as electricity production. Exceptional work has been done with lighting. According to the US Department of Energy, a massive use of LEDs would allow the United States to do without electricity from 44 large electric plants (1000 megawatts each) (7). Innovations are also on the horizon for household appliances, both for the machines themselves and their uses. As for building façades, now called “smart envelopes,” their functions are multiplying: insulation, heat recovery, electricity production, information gathering, and more. Energy self-sufficiency in buildings is a revolution — driving another revolution in connectivity.

In fact, the issue of connectivity is more than just a question of energy management. The needs of building managers and users are increasing with our changing lifestyles, which involve greater mobility and comfort, a changing relationship to urban space, IoT, and centralized and decentralized controls. All these mean we need to optimize energy consumption.

These profound shifts are leading users to install Building Management Systems (BMS). They centralize all the data from very different origins: connected objects or home automation devices, equipment, etc. Many companies have started developing complex interfaces so that all these systems can communicate through different protocols.

Creating New Jobs, and Economic and Political Opportunities

These innovations provide users with several new features. They now have a wide range of up-to-the moment data, such as the number of people in the building, the availability of parking spaces, the temperature of the rooms, or even the detection of water leaks. This information can also trigger alerts, allowing building supervisors to react quickly and optimize management. Surveillance can focus on safety or on a better knowledge of building conditions, depending on the situations. When a cloudy sky clears up, windows can automatically darken and thus drastically reduce the need for air conditioning. Even in winter, air-conditioning is rarely turned off in offices with servers and lots of workstations.

Connectivity also allows remote communication. For homeowners, this means checking that the windows are closed or alerting them to someone’s presence. For a company, this means knowing how many offices are available or remote controlling robots. All of this information must be processed. In a hospital, it is important to analyze and predict patient and resource flows precisely. Whatever the building, connectivity is becoming more and more important for companies that have to precisely manage their flows…and their energy bills.

This is the trend driving the building industry, which has now entered the Third Industrial Revolution predicted by Jeremy Rifkin in 2011 (8). This shift affects architects as well as developers, builders, energy companies, manufacturers, and service providers. Many innovations have already been launched, and many more are yet to come. A new pathway is opening up for countries to create new industries with new kinds of jobs. Another advantage is that the people financing this shift, the developers, are clearly driving the revolution because they increase the value of their holdings. The stage is now set for the emergence of energy independent, connected buildings, and a very specific roadmap has been laid out, ready for our politicians to follow!