Systems Efficiency Gains Steam

May 11, 2017

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In biology, we often hear the popular web-of-life metaphor, referencing the rich interconnectedness of all fauna and flora. In the building efficiency world, we don’t have anything quite as elegant, but we do hold a deep appreciation and growing interest in how the many complex interactions of individual technologies, as well as building systems, can help drive deeper energy savings.

Earlier this week at its EE Global Forum, the Alliance to Save Energy (ASE) released a new report that digs deeper into what is generally referred to as systems efficiency and the innovation opportunity it presents. The report, “Going Beyond Zero: A Systems Efficiency Blueprint for Building Energy Optimization and Resilience”, explores how we can better capitalize on new technologies allowing smarter interactions of components within and among various building systems, as well as interactions among multiple buildings, and between the building and the electric grid.

“We’ve known for years that while we need to continue making progress on the efficiency of individual components in buildings, we can’t meet our goals without also looking at buildings holistically and taking a systems approach,” said ASE President Kateri Callahan. “It’s time we move from the discussion phase to execution, and that’s what this blueprint is intended to do.”

Here at the Building Technologies Office, we’ve long had our systems thinking-caps on, developing a strong track record of supporting a host of projects and initiatives that advance systems efficiency R&D.

  • Last fall, we released the annual BENEFIT FOA with a new R&D topic targeting energy consumption for miscellaneous electric loads (MELs). The 2015 DOE Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR) analysis suggests that once the BTO ET program 2020 R&D targets for the major building end-use technologies (HVAC, water heating, lighting, windows, etc.) are attained, MELs will constitute ∼ 60% of the remaining primary energy consumption in buildings. One particular area of interest highlighted in the BENEFIT FOA was DC power distribution. As a part of that effort, we recognize the need for rigorous evaluations to provide standard, well-defined system boundaries and systematic, impartial comparison to effectively design DC distribution for a variety of scenarios and building types with the best pathway to energy savings.
  • In January 2016, the Department of Energy’s Grid Modernization Initiative (GMI) announced $220M of funding over three years for the DOE national labs and partners to support key R&D activities aimed at modernizing the nation’s grid and solving critical integration issues, including those involving connected and smart buildings. BTO has been an active participant in the GMI over the past two years, specifically focusing on R&D that will allow buildings to become the largest, readily deployable assets for leverage within the utility.
  • In 2015 we kicked off our Beyond Widgets – Systems EE for Utilities project, which set out to reduce barriers to the development and implementation of systems energy efficiency programs that utilities could adopt.  Most incentive programs use a deemed savings approach for "widget" technologies. This project seeks to overcome a variety of barriers and show the energy saving potential of three piloted packaged systems. Early results show 17-33% whole building energy savings from these packaged systems.
  • Last fall, we announced our Scaling Up the Next Generation of Building Efficiency Packages Funding Opportunity, which will support up to $6.5 million toward projects that identify and verify the cost and energy performance of multisystem energy efficiency packages (groups of technologies that improve efficiency across two building systems: envelope, lighting/electrical, plug, process, heating, ventilation, cooling, refrigeration, energy management and information, sensors and controls).
  • For the past few years, we have also led collaborative, multi-stakeholder efforts to advance Zero Energy Buildings, where these systems efficiency conversations often converge because projects can’t achieve the ambitious goal of zero energy without adopting a smart, integrated approach that utilizes multiple innovative technologies and systems.
  • Additionally, we are working closely with businesses to support and recognize best practices in using connected building systems to create voluntary energy savings using smart energy analytics. Under the Smart Energy Analytics Campaign, 22 participants/portfolios representing a total of 55.6 million square feet are using energy management and information systems to produce more than $10 million in annual cost savings.

As we look forward, we remain excited about the opportunity to continue to drive advances in systems-level efficiency in buildings and help support breakthroughs that will ultimately help commercial buildings and homes achieve deeper energy savings. Yet, as the ASE report recognizes, there is still more work and R&D to do to achieve the significant potential in this area.