Energy efficiency’s big secret: a major retrofit of performance can be surprisingly affordable

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SPONSORED: Existing buildings typically have the ability to radically improve their energy performance.  That means there’s often a mountain of untapped potential that could slash emissions and running costs, according to Craig Roussac of Buildings Alive.


It might sound too good to be true but there’s a way to save as much as 25 per cent on energy bills without spending an extra cent on capital upgrades.

Craig Roussac, chief executive officer of Buildings Alive

The trick? People.

Human empowerment is the secret weapon in building performance, according to chief executive officer of Buildings Alive, Craig Roussac.

Roussac and his team of engineers and scientists at Buildings Alive have spent over 10 years developing a technology and service that arms building managers with the tools to iteratively drive down energy usage. The program has delivered energy savings for hundreds of large office buildings, shopping centres, academic buildings, laboratories and other complex buildings around the world at a fraction of the cost of an onsite solar array or other major capital project.

Roussac wants the C-Suite to start asking “what is the potential of my building?” 

The company performs complex modelling of a building’s energy performance, taking into account external factors such as temperature and humidity, and boils it all down to clear insights that motivate building managers to achieve their buildings’ “personal best.”

It’s not fancy gamification – the simple act of giving people feedback on what’s going on is enough. 

According to Roussac, most building managers are grappling with complexity and don’t get the clear information they need to continually improve their building’s performance beyond a selected benchmark. 

Fund managers and asset managers need to ask the right questions

It doesn’t help that those at the top are usually unaware of the potential for energy efficiency improvements.

Too often Roussac hears stories of fund managers and asset managers achieving a decent energy rating and then calling it quits on further efficiency improvements, thinking the job’s done.

Rather than settling on a good benchmark rating, Roussac wants the C-Suite to start asking “what is the potential of my building?” 

“We need to focus on getting the most out of buildings now.”

“They should also be asking how much better it could be, how much further do we need to go until everything is optimised?”

Even in the rare event these types of questions make it to the decision makers, it’s unlikely the tools are available to answer this.

It doesn’t make sense that we’re letting all this energy go to waste

He says this phenomenon doesn’t make sense because there is the expectation that if energy, and therefore money, is going to waste the market will “sort it out” before long.

But Roussac has learnt that there are barriers to optimising energy efficiency and building services and that markets alone won’t overcome. One of those barriers is a lack of information. 

The stats and how the model works

That’s why Buildings Alive has built a technology platform that explains energy (and water) use as function of the variables outside the building managers control.

For a building manager, the raw energy data in a building will be impacted by external factors such as temperature, humidity, overnight conditions, occupancy, solar load and the day of the week. 

The discipline of forecasting is the realm of machine learning and building managers tend to have other areas of expertise.

These conditions drive the data up and down, and it’s hard to know if operational decisions – such as tweaking with an airconditioning system’s control parameters – were successful at keeping energy use down or not.

A capable building manager might be able to make an informed judgement but Roussac says the discipline of forecasting is the realm of machine learning and building managers tend to have other areas of expertise.

The feedback can be easy to understand

Although the computational work behind the tool is complex, the final product is clear feedback to the operator every day (by email) about the performance of their building that’s simple and easy to understand.  

From these insights, people make adjustments to the building’s operations with the intention of getting the best possible building performance result every day.  

Buildings Alive effectively coaches building managers to go after “personal bests”. The program includes a forum for transferring learning and “cross-pollinating” ideas between the company’s community, which includes buildings from across the globe. 

For example, if a building in Seattle is experiencing unusually humid weather there might be something to learn from building management in Brisbane, where that type of weather is common. 

Comfort does not have to cost more

The company puts to bed the idea that occupancy comfort tends to come at the expense of low energy use. Roussac says these seemingly competing needs can be synced up, provided the energy efficiency modelling is sophisticated enough.

Machines are going to make better decisions than humans in the future but he say this is a long way off for building management.

“You can—and should—be eliminating technical services requests at the same time as optimising energy use and driving up thermal comfort.”

The role of machines

Buildings Alive is all about elevating humans to the decision making role and letting machines do the boring, routine diagnostic work.

Roussac says the term “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” can be misleading, and that machines are in fact incredibly good at doing exactly what they are told to do, over and over and over again in mind numbing detail. 

“In that sense they are not actually that clever!”

He expects machines are going to make better decisions than humans in the future but he say this is a long way off for building management. For now, we need to empower our building managers to make the best possible operating decisions with the minimum time and effort.

“We need to focus on getting the most out of buildings now.”

 

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