Group of people standing facing the camera inside a conference room.
The Inaugural Connected Communities cohort, the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab national coordinating team, and management from DOE headquarters.

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) kicked off the inaugural cohort of Connected Communities at the Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio. Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Alejandro Moreno joined leaders from project partners, staff from BTO and the national labs, as well as other guests to launch the cohort of nine awarded Connected Communities projects. During the visit, they toured OSU’s East Regional Water Chiller Plant and Innovation District, some of the diverse vintage buildings that will be built and retrofitted as part of the OSU Connected Communities project with Engie North America, American Electric Power, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Buildings account for 74% of U.S. electricity consumption – and even more during times of peak demand. Moreover, the way electricity is generated and consumed is changing year by year, fueled by the rapid adoption of renewable energy resources like hydropower, wind, and solar. Due to these sources’ variability and events exacerbated by climate change, it is more complicated than ever to deliver power when people need it most. Still, maintaining today’s energy system is not enough. To fully decarbonize the grid by 2035 and the economy by 2050, every tool will be necessary: energy efficiency to reduce demand, beneficial electrification to eliminate distributed emissions, and flexible integration of distributed energy resources (DERs).

Due to the large impact of buildings on the power system, they are a natural place to focus. Decarbonized, smart buildings that generate fewer emissions will need to become the norm. These “smarter” buildings that communicate with the electrical grid via innovations like smart thermostats, managed charging, or rooftop solar with energy storage, are integral to smoothing out demand by the minute, hour, and day. While most buildings have systems where integration can be beneficial—like heating air and water together—communities, or groups of buildings, can offer more benefit than the sum of their parts through shared investment, load diversity, economies of scale, innovative business models, and customer engagement. However, there is not yet an easy way to set up grid-efficient buildings, either on their own or at the community scale. The DOE is looking to establish best practices on performance and value to help validate technologies, business models and planning processes required for a grid-flexible future.

Connected Communities was founded on these principles with the intention of driving innovation at the grid edge and raising the bar for buildings to serve as grid resources, targeting energy-efficiency improvements of 30% or more over baseline energy use and integrating several types of DERs across a variety of building types around the country. As we also move toward greater electrification of buildings and transportation, the grid edge becomes the point of action to help manage additional power demands while aiming to minimize the need for added utility and building electrical infrastructure. The awarded projects will collaborate as a cohort, and DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) will serve as the national coordinator. By providing cross-cutting analysis to identify shared pain points and solutions, the cohort will be taking the extra step to replicate and scale innovation.

This event marks the launch of the first cohort of Connected Communities. These projects span multiple building types from large commercial buildings to municipal buildings and college campuses to multifamily affordable housing and new single-family communities. These projects will demonstrate decarbonization along three major arcs–efficiency, electrification and demand flexibility.  Among the diverse building types and technologies covered by Connected Communities, at least half of the projects include low- and moderate-income housing, which will provide a better understanding of equity considerations related to advanced building technologies, demand flexibility, and greater DER integration in direct support of the Administration’s Justice40 Initiative. The nine awarded projects represent diversity in region, building type, DERs, and control approach. For example:

  • The Ohio State University, host for the cohort’s official kick-off, will demonstrate cybersecure orchestrated control of DERs across an array of diverse buildings on their campus for energy efficiency and demand management.
  • Portland General Electric aims for 1.4 MW of flexible loads by retrofitting nearly 600 commercial and residential buildings within a low-income and traditionally underserved community.
  • In Raleigh, North Carolina, IBACOS will connect hundreds of new and existing homes to solar power, battery storage, and smart thermostats to serve peak capacity and resource adequacy in Duke Energy’s transmission and distribution territory, while meeting zero-energy targets.
  • Edo Energy, in Spokane, Washington, aims to implement 1.0-2.3 MW of flexible loads by retrofitting heat pumps, water heaters, control systems and other resources in an all-electric virtual power plant that will help defer capital investment for a 55-MW peak substation.

The Connected Communities Cohort Kick-off Event was the first opportunity for the partners to share important milestones and discuss key challenges. Throughout the event, performers had opportunities to learn from each other and from prior BTO-funded projects. The Cohort tackled issues ranging from demand flexibility policy and utility programs to cybersecurity and data privacy. Lessons learned from past Connected Communities projects were highlighted, including Basalt Vista, Smart Neighborhoods, and the California Advanced Energy Communities. Throughout the day, DOE leadership and project partners were able to enjoy the breadth of perspectives that are inherent in the multisector collaboration that makes up Connected Communities.

The way America views electricity is rapidly changing and while that transition has challenges, demonstrations like these Connected Communities show a path forward. Through energy-efficiency improvements and grid flexibility, these projects show how buildings can provide grid services and deliver superior performance to occupants while also reducing energy consumption, mitigating carbon emissions, and saving money for people where they work and live.