Alex Fitzsimmons is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency at the U.S. Department of Energy.

The integration of new energy technologies in America’s homes and buildings holds promise to enhance the flexibility, resilience, and efficiency of our energy system. In fact, residential and commercial buildings are unique assets to the U.S. energy system, as buildings consume 75 percent of all U.S. electricity, and typically more during peak demand. As the technological sophistication of our homes and workplaces continues to rise, so does the opportunity for buildings to play a larger role in shaping the energy system of the future.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is researching how buildings, linked to one another across the grid and the internet, can be joined to improve themselves, each other, and America’s energy system. That’s the vision of DOE's Grid-interactive Efficient Buildings (GEB) Initiative, led by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) and our Building Technologies Office (BTO). Through the GEB Initiative, DOE is working toward a future in which buildings can serve as reliable grid assets that operate dynamically with the grid to enhance efficiency, flexibility, and resilience.

To expand this effort, EERE recently announced its intent to issue a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) entitled “Connected Communities,” and today released a Request for Information seeking public input on the effort. This new, competitive funding, which we expect to announce in the coming months, would invest up to $42 million in a cohort of regional pilots around the country. These projects, managed by BTO, would evaluate the capacity of GEBs to perform at a community scale, providing greater degrees of demand flexibility at far greater scales and in more varied settings than we’ve ever tested before.

The Connected Communities pilots will be an expansion of a successful partnership between DOE, electric utilities, and real estate developers known as “Smart Neighborhoods”, which test GEB functionality in “real world” inhabited homes. These projects integrate energy storage, energy efficiency, and other distributed energy resources with connected appliances and other features to reduce, store, and change the timing of household energy use – without sacrificing the productivity and comfort of building occupants.

Unveiled in 2018, Alabama Power’s Smart Neighborhood in a suburb of Birmingham is comprised of 62 single-family homes with connected appliances, highly efficient design and equipment, EV chargers, and advanced controls. Better yet, the homes are connected as a neighborhood-level, islandable microgrid, which includes community PV, a battery storage system, and a backup natural gas generator. Meanwhile, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is developing novel control strategies using DOE’s transactive control platform to achieve grid-responsive control of the loads in these homes.

“Smart homes and neighborhoods are providing choice and freedom to the American people on how they want to receive and use their energy supply,” said Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette after a tour last year of Alabama Power's Smart Neighborhood. Assistant Secretary for DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Daniel R Simmons, has also toured the neighborhood since it was unveiled.

Launched in 2019, Georgia Power’s Smart Neighborhood in Atlanta is a set of 46 townhomes that includes rooftop solar panels, battery energy storage, and energy-efficient building technologies. Similar to the Alabama neighborhood, the advanced technologies within these homes are also managed by ORNL’s control platform, which if successful, will enhance flexibility and provide value for homeowners and grid operators alike.

The success of these projects depends on validating results in the real-life conditions—and the results so far are quite promising. After a full year of occupancy, the Birmingham smart homes are using 44% less energy than comparable new-construction homes in the Birmingham metro area. These homes have reduced their peak winter heating demand by 34% from the needs of a traditional all-electric community, while maintaining (if not improving) performance and comfort for the homeowners.

Through rigorous field validation, the Smart Neighborhoods can illustrate the potential of GEBs in the U.S. energy system. Building on this foundation, the Connected Communities program will serve as a model for how to combine DOE’s early-stage research and development with private-sector field validation to de-risk and commercialize new technologies. The Connected Communities program is part of a larger field validation strategy being developed by EERE’s Energy Efficiency sector.

It is important to note that while the existing Smart Neighborhoods focused on new homes, the Connected Communities FOA will be open to proposals for both new and existing communities, including both residential and commercial buildings. The goal is to develop a diverse set of projects across multiple geographic regions, building types, technology solutions, and market structures around the country.

DOE looks forward to engaging with the public about the Connected Communities demonstrations. Sign up for BTO updates to get the latest information on this FOA’s development, including schedules for webinars to come in the following weeks and months.

As I explained at the ribbon cutting for the Atlanta Smart Neighborhood last year, DOE is reframing the way we think about the role of buildings in our energy system. We are less interested in searching for ways to simply use less energy within a building’s walls. Instead, DOE is working to understand how to use energy consumption more dynamically, so buildings can provide innovative services to the grid with which they’re connected – improving the efficiency, flexibility, and resilience of America’s energy system.

Alex Fitzsimmons
Alex Fitzsimmons, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
more by this author