Decarbonizing buildings: An all-electric, digital future

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The impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate change is still very much top-of-mind for governments, organizations, and the general public. For example, the Biden administration recently announced a plan for the U.S. to produce half of its energy from solar by 2050 and take the country from 38% clean generation in 2019 to 100% in 2035. The president also wants half of all vehicles to be electric by 2030. But what about the part that buildings play? In this post, I will discuss the path to decarbonizing the world’s buildings.

As part of Forbes Councils, I was invited to present an article on how decarbonizing buildings can help fight climate change. Let us talk about some of the reasons we need to do this, and then look at the technologies that make this possible today.

Decarbonizing buildings

As people’s lives and businesses began to rebound – at least partially – from the pandemic, reports as early as March of this year showed emissions increasing again worldwide. An even more recent IPCC report states that “global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.” The potential impacts? Heatwaves, rising ocean temperatures and sea levels, droughts, increased tropical cyclones, and more.

Since we spend the majority of our time inside buildings that produce 40% of global emissions, we need to rethink how we design, build, operate and maintain this part of our global infrastructure. Whether you own or operate healthcare, commercial real estate, retail, hospitality, or any other kind of facility, your team needs to be thinking about setting a path to net-zero carbon. Beyond meeting regulatory requirements and helping the planet, it will also help you cut operating costs, attract talent, and make your business a more attractive investment.

The future of decarbonized buildings is all-electric and digital

Beyond the embodied carbon of how buildings are constructed, the energy sources used to have a lot to do with their carbon footprint. Increasing the use of renewables is a positive step, either by installing onsite solar or wind generation or by procuring green energy from the grid.

A local microgrid can include onsite energy storage that helps increase the flexibility of renewables, optimizing when and how green energy is consumed – maybe for electric vehicle charging. In some regions, the stored energy can also be sold back to the local utility during periods of high demand. This helps boost grid resiliency while optimizing your energy bills.

When we look at the energy usage side, there are many ways new buildings can be built to be more efficient, but there are also many retrofits that make sense for existing decarbonizing buildings. One of the most effective is converting fossil fuel-based heating to electric, which can also be more efficient. In fact, electric heat pumps and heat pump water heaters can be up to five times more energy-efficient than their natural gas counterparts. In some cases, it may require government incentives and tax reforms to make such upgrades viable. See my Forbes article for more on this topic.

But buildings need to go further than all-electric. They need to be hyper-efficient. The new benchmark is a maximum consumption of 50 kWh per m2 per year. Achieving this, or better, performance requires making a digital transformation.

It is essential that all new buildings be smart buildings, with digital as an integral part of their design. But the value of digital is also true for older buildings. More than 50 percent of the global installed bases of buildings were built before the 1980s before codes for energy efficiency were in place. Retrofitting a digital infrastructure is highly cost-effective as it enables a wide scope of benefits.

The newest digital technologies are helping us better manage the way we use energy. Until now, it has been common for different building systems to be managed in a siloed manner. For example, a building management system (BMS) would optimize heating, ventilating, and air conditioning, while an electrical energy management system would focus on other power distribution and consumption aspects.

This scenario is now changing as intelligent infrastructures are becoming more tightly integrated. Power, building, facility, and space management systems can now ‘co-optimize’ their performance.

For example, imagine an intelligent solution that tracks the flow of people in your building. In turn, the BMS is automatically optimizing heating, cooling, or ventilation based on occupancy. Rooms can be preheated or pre-cooled before people come in, then when a space does not use, these services can be reduced to help save energy. You will now have a better understanding of how people are using the building, ensuring their comfort and safety while also giving them mobile engagement apps that enable direct control of their environment.

These powerful digital technologies will also simplify classifying different types of loads (e.g., lighting, HVAC, IT, kitchen, etc.) and quantify their equivalent carbon emissions. This understanding will help you reveal opportunities and make the best decisions toward dramatically reducing the ongoing environmental impact of your buildings.

Success is within reach

These kinds of improvements, and more, are achievable with today’s technologies. Many organizations around the globe are making net-zero commitments and already have buildings that are helping them move toward that goal. Here are a couple of examples.

IntenCity is one of the newest Schneider Electric buildings. Located in Grenoble, France, it perfectly illustrates our vision of Buildings of the Future: fully digital, sustainable, and people-centric. It is expected to achieve the highest LEED Platinum score globally, consuming only 37 kWh per m2 per year, which is just 11% of the average consumption of buildings in Europe. It will also be net-zero energy, producing as much electricity as it consumes.

Swire Properties manages buildings across Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. They are using an EcoStruxure solution from Schneider Electric that enables management and operations staff to monitor, benchmarks, and analyze the energy and operational performance of its office buildings and shopping malls while identifying energy-saving opportunities. They expect 10 to 20% annual energy savings while reducing their carbon footprint to meet their sustainability goals.

Discover more about our vision for Buildings of the Future and our EcoStruxure Buildings solutions.

Global100 Schneider Electric has been recognized as the world’s most sustainable corporation in 2021 by Corporate Knights Global 100 Index.

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