We’re witnessing an explosion in the number of Internet-connected devices and “smart” technologies that offer consumers a new level of function, fun, and convenience: every hour more than 200,000 new devices get connected to the Internet globally, and the U.S. market for these devices is the world’s biggest by fourfold – and growing 20% annually or more. At DOE we’re interested in the energy opportunities these new devices represent, starting with how they enable consumers and their buildings to provide valuable new services to utilities – from reducing peak demand to integrating renewables – potentially generating big savings for end-users, the utility system, and the country.

At the Building Technologies Office (BTO), we’re conducting Grid-interactive Efficient Buildings (GEB) research to help bring connectedness – and the related energy savings – across the entire building sector, commercial and residential alike. GEB research will allow American businesses and families to save energy and reduce their utility bills automatically and without impacting comfort or productivity. 

The GEB vision is more than just saving energy and money inside buildings. Increased Internet connections for building equipment can also enable buildings to be more responsive to electric grid conditions. This helps avert system stress, enhancing the reliability of the entire grid. Grid-interactive water heaters, for example, know exactly when to turn on or off the electric heating elements to reduce power use during moments when the utility system reaches peak demand … or to shift power consumption to when the utility system has excess capacity.

BTO envisions a future where grid-responsive equipment grows in popularity and helps defer the need to construct expensive new transmission and distribution facilities. This can defer spending and thus mitigate rate increases for utilities and their customers, and also introduce new sources of revenue for participating customers. A recent BTO-sponsored study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab found that some of the largest utility benefits from energy efficiency comes from the deferral of transmission and distribution system infrastructure upgrades. Which means that when electricity is saved is just as important as how much is saved.

Helping buildings become responsive and dispatchable in response to grid needs is at the core of BTO’s GEB research. In the rapidly approaching GEB future, buildings will not only demand power from the grid but can also adjust their own demand up or down, earlier or later, in response to fluctuating grid conditions. BTO’s research will support the technologies and practices that enable this two-way interaction between buildings and the electric system.

Helping make homes and other buildings smarter and better connected is certainly not without significant challenges. Many in the building sector (including owners, managers, and tenants) are not aware of the energy-savings opportunities from connected devices. And even for those who are aware, the time and effort spent to learn about and install these devices may be too daunting – especially given that most have electric rates that do not vary by time, and thus don’t reward consumers for time-shifting their power use. Furthermore, once installed there is no guarantee that different equipment will work together to make the building itself grid-responsive – without interoperability, utilities can’t fully engage with buildings and their occupants. 

BTO’s GEB portfolio is working to:

Leverage enhanced data from advancements and cost reductions of sensors and sub-metering – BTO is investing in replacing “handcrafted,” rule-based building control routines for fault detection and diagnostics and model-predictive control. Our goal is to enable fully autonomous and distributed controls that effectively integrate grid operations with occupant comfort and energy savings.

Enable interoperability – BTO is working with stakeholders to develop a roadmap for the seamless communication between building devices and systems, regardless of manufacturer, allowing easier control of devices, equipment, and appliances.

Ensure integration with other distributed energy resources – buildings can increase a utility’s ability to host renewables such as wind and solar, energy storage, and electrification of vehicles. BTO is examining how buildings and campuses can serve as “virtual storage” – going beyond batteries with transaction-based communicative systems that help balance supply and demand on the grid by shifting the time that power is consumed.

Accurately value GEB performance – traditional energy efficiency examines how much energy is saved, but not when. BTO is analyzing how time and location affect the value of efficiency, as well as the value of connectivity and smartness.

Develop cyber-secure transaction-based energy systems – we’re developing transaction-based controls (that inherently value the consumer and utility engagement) as a method to help facilitate GEB transactions. For example, one BTO effort, done with the Pacific Northwest National Lab, has been to develop a cyber-secure and highly interoperable platform for distributed control and sensing called VOLTTRON, designed to support modern control strategies, including use of agent-based controls.

BTO’s GEB portfolio works hand in glove with DOE’s broader Grid Modernization Initiative (GMI), a comprehensive effort of different DOE offices and national laboratories with public and private partners to help shape the future of our nation’s grid. GMI is developing new utility architectural concepts and technologies that can better measure, predict, and protect the grid, and identifying the institutional changes needed so American consumers and business can best take advantage of a modernized grid.

Over the coming months, BTO staff will be blogging on some of these key opportunities, challenges and research priorities for grid-interactive efficient buildings – we hope you’ll stay connected.

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