Buildings decarbonization: Prerequisites to MEA’s net-zero transition

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There is a scientific consensus that buildings – from construction to lifecycle operations – account for a third of final energy consumption and at least a quarter of emissions globally. In the Middle East and Africa (MEA), the steady population growth, rising energy demands, and unchecked urbanization will only exacerbate the situation without timely decarbonization of existing and new buildings. 

This broad-based consideration also factors in the disproportionate impact of climate change—how countries with lower carbon footprint are at the front lines of the adverse impact. The MEA region exemplifies that disparity. For example, Africa contributes only about 3% to global GHG emissions but experiences acute climate-change manifestations — such as crippled water and food systems, uncharacteristic rainfall, and droughts that defy seasonality. 

Climate change adaptation and mitigation measures gather a sense of urgency in MEA. In that context, a focus area is buildings — one of the biggest guzzlers of energy and sources of emissions.

At Schneider Electric, we understand this well as we took the step globally to bridge progress and sustainability for all. This also meant we embrace transformation to become sustainability practitioners ourselves. Backed by our commitment (validated by the Science Based Targets initiative) our goal is to move toward 25% absolute reduction across our entire value chain and become “Net-Zero ready” in our operations by 2030.

This, of course, will deliver a positive cascading impact on our ecosystem of partners and customers, offering everyone action-oriented solutions. So, what is a good starting point when we discuss action toward effective building decarbonization? Let’s look at some possibilities together.

Decarbonizing Buildings like this one are key to MEA's Net-Zero Transition

Electrification is a plausible solution

Electricity is inherently three- to- four times more efficient than other energy sources. So, the correlation between electrification and decarbonization is as understandable as it is rational. Consequently, we believe the share of electricity in the energy mix will grow from 6% today to about 40% by 2040. Though a welcome development, conventional electrification is not without an environmental cost. In the MEA, thermal plants (which are carbon- and energy-intensive) continue to be the primary source of electricity. In other words, electrifying fossil fuel-based systems in buildings using power sourced from thermal plants can be self-contradictory. 

At Schneider, we believe electricity must be re-envisioned; we must consider renewable energy-based production, reduction of wastage, and easy accessibility across the socioeconomic strata. Our phraseology for this paradigm shift is Electricity 4.0—the next evolutionary stage of electricity, along the same lines as Industry 4.0. In MEA, where electricity continues to be largely intermittent or inaccessible in non-urban areas, the re-envisioning could catalyze decarbonization efforts in buildings. Electricity 4.0 posits increased digitalization in the value chain, which complements the “smart buildings” transition.  

Smart buildings are prerequisites to building decarbonization

Replacing fossil fuel-based systems with electric alternatives can reduce energy usage considerably. Moreover, the positive impact can be maximized through IoT-based integration of building management systems (BMS) and building automation systems (BAS) across a portfolio. It eliminates silos between such systems, extracts and consolidates data from each, and provides greater visibility into their performances and energy efficiencies on an intuitive dashboard. Smart sensors can detect occupancy levels, enabling operators to adjust energy loads automatically. Such possibilities are the hallmarks of a smart building. 

In such an infrastructure, real-time insights enable users and operators to monitor energy consumption against KPIs, proactively address anomalies, and ensure high efficiency. Considering over 30% of energy in buildings is wasted, insight-led operations can be of great consequence in large facilities. Furthermore, due to IoT-driven interoperability and programmability, owners can seamlessly add innovative systems into the portfolio as and when they emerge. Such portfolios can be connected to on-site microgrids where the energy produced through renewable sources is stored and managed. That lays a strong foundation towards building decarbonization

Lead by example through EcoStruxure

IntenCity, an office located in Grenoble, France, is a manifestation of Schneider’s net-zero vision. Using EcoStruxure—an IoT-led, plug-and-play, open, interoperable architecture platform—the operations of IntenCity’s 13 sites were consolidated into four. The deployment of smart sensors, followed by EcoStruxure’s collation of 60,000 data points every 10 minutes, enables Schneider to reduce energy usage while ensuring the well-being of 5,000 employees through personalized comfort, optimal indoor air quality (IAQ), and adaptive lighting. Concurrently, two wind turbines and expansive photovoltaic panels generate 970 Megawatt hours of energy per year, aiding Schneider to share surplus power with the city of Grenoble. 

All in all, IntenCity consumes about ten times less energy than a typical European building while generating a power surplus to its requirements, transforming it into a quintessential net-zero building. Such demonstrated results are noteworthy because they make a compelling business case for sustainability in buildings, particularly old ones, which have outsized energy and carbon footprints. Old buildings have remained largely outside the purview of sustainability due to the lack of awareness of retrofit solutions such as EcoStruxure. As more than 50% of all existing buildings will still be operational by 2050, raising awareness of retrofitting is crucial to stay on track to net-zero targets. 

Today, as we tread close to the tipping point in climate change, there is an onus on stakeholders in the real estate ecosystem to align themselves with regional sustainability and net-zero goals. Fortunately, they stand to benefit immensely from building decarbonization through higher resilience, people-centric outcomes, reduced operating expenses, and property desirability that IoT-led operations bring about. Due to the MEA region’s systemic susceptibilities to climate change, the sooner stakeholders pursue net-zero transitions, the better. 

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