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Buildings are becoming more responsive and dispatchable, reacting to grid needs while also helping American businesses and families to save energy – reducing their utility bills automatically, without negatively impacting comfort or productivity. Recently Building Technologies Office Director David Nemtzow wrote the inaugural BTO Buildings and the Grid 101 blog post. In that blog post, he laid out the opportunities in this exciting research area and also described BTO’s vision of grid-interactive efficient buildings (GEB) – to achieve that vision, however, there are many challenges we collectively need to overcome.

As an economist, when I approach a new problem I first think of the financial or market challenges. For example, the high cost of building energy management systems and the expert knowledge necessary to run them have limited uptake of these systems in small and medium commercial buildings. Energy Information Administration data shows that in 2012 – the most recent year for which there are data – over 45% of large commercial buildings had a building automation system (BAS), while fewer than 8% of commercial buildings under 50,000 square feet did. There are also market barriers other than high upfront costs, such as the mismatch between the prices paid for electricity by consumers and the value that electricity has.

Beyond the challenges of first-cost, market structure, and proper valuation, there are also serious operating and data challenges that need to be considered – these include challenges such as uniting behind a common interoperability solution, maintaining a cyber-secure system, and properly managing data in a way that preserves private or proprietary information. For the widespread adoption and utilization of grid-interactive technologies to yield positive benefits, the system must be able to work as a single unit. This means that all technologies will need to be interoperable, much like email is – whether you use a Mac or PC or are looking your email up on a phone or smart watch, you can access your email. Building consensus around a strategic vision for interoperability is a major challenge that needs to be overcome for the successful realization of BTO’s GEB vision. Furthermore, systems must be secure from cyber and even physical attacks. Cyber-security is needed both to make sure the system works properly and to help protect personal information, but these needs must also be balanced against the need to share some data in order to provide customers and the grid the energy services promised by GEB.

Even if these operating challenges are addressed, the building sector will still need to invest in a properly educated and qualified workforce. Updated curricula are needed for construction, mechanical, and electrical engineers, so that when buildings are being designed and operated, it is done in a way that maximizes both energy savings and grid interoperability.

Beyond these financial, operating, and workforce challenges, there are the promises of GEB that we will need to deliver on – these are not so much challenges, but rather objectives that will need to be achieved if GEB will deliver the vision that David previously described. Grid-interactive efficient buildings will need to make electricity delivery more reliable, meaning that outage time will be minimized while power quality will be easier to maintain. An electric grid that incorporates grid-interactive efficient buildings should also reduce air pollution, as they will allow a greater share of our electricity supply to come from variable renewables. While not challenges in and of themselves, it will be a challenge to deliver on all of these elements in any GEB future.

Finally, let me conclude by saying that the information above is not an exhaustive list of the challenges that need to be overcome to achieve BTO’s GEB vision. I’ll also observe that many of these challenges are similar to those faced by traditional energy efficiency efforts (e.g. higher first cost, underappreciation of value, the hassle of learning a new system, not fully appreciating the benefits). And just like traditional energy efficiency efforts, many of these challenges are already being addressed – for example, DOE’s Grid Modernization Lab Consortium is working on building consensus around interoperability and working on processes to identify and respond to cyber threats. More needs to be done, however, if grid-interactive efficient buildings are to deliver their full value to the U.S. energy system.

Over the next few installments of Buildings and the Grid 101, we will explore specific strategies that BTO and others are using to address these challenges. These will highlight some of the complex scientific and engineering issues that need to be worked out in order for grid-integrated efficient buildings to work – and work properly – in the real world. Stay tuned to find out what BTO is doing to tackle these challenge and help achieve our GEB vision.

Read more in the Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings article series.