Are energy-efficient building technologies reaching their stride?

Editor's Note: This piece was written by Tom Machinchick, a principal research analyst contributing to Navigant Research’s Building Innovations program with a focus on technologies that enable energy-efficient commercial buildings. The opinions represented in this piece are independent of Smart Cities Dive's views.

Energy-efficient buildings and building technologies may be reaching their stride. Digitization has penetrated most of the energy-efficient building technologies in the market today, providing better building performance and offering detailed data for optimizing current operations and identifying future energy efficiency opportunities.

For many of these technologies, the days of proof-of-concept and pilot programs are largely over. Greater acceptance has built marketwide trust and deeper penetration of these applications in most commercial building market segments and energy efficiency-related projects. In fact, 72% of the respondents in Johnson Controls’ 2016 Energy Efficiency Indicator (EEI) Survey anticipate an increase in investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy over the next 12 months.

Exploring innovation in all building components

Many buildings have realized the benefits of LED light replacements, more efficient HVAC system replacements and advanced building sensors and controls. But innovation is happening in other building components that have not traditionally received a high level of focus.

For example, smart tinting glass, such as that offered by Kinestral Technologies, is gaining in color quality, speed of tint change and intelligent coordination with other building equipment and sensors. This helps to enable efficient daylighting effects while reducing HVAC load requirements during the most critical time of the day. Standard hollow core concrete flooring slabs are no longer "dumb as a rock." Termobuild, based in Ontario, Canada, has created a software application and connected these concrete slabs to the HVAC systems of buildings. This allows the slabs to essentially become a conditioned storage system for both hot and cold days, and enables a significant downsizing of the building's HVAC system.

Some may surmise that the downward spiral of pricing pressures on LED lighting is a death knell for LED manufacturers. But lighting vendors may hold the best position in the energy-efficient building technologies market as digitization becomes more prevalent. With lighting fixtures positioned every few meters in every room of a building, smart LED lighting systems integrated with other building and enterprise applications essentially become a sensor network that can feed greater efficiency gains. Advanced applications in this area are still in their infancy, holding the possibility for unique and creative solutions in a multitude of energy- and non-energy-related areas.

Pushing the envelope

The large, incumbent equipment manufacturers themselves are not lost to innovative ideas. Vendors such as Trane, Johnson Controls, Siemens, Philips and Schneider Electric all have leading edge offerings that are pushing the envelope of efficient building technologies further down the road. Many of the most advanced offerings can only realistically be utilized by larger, more sophisticated end users, but as these products mature, adoption will likely move into other market segments.

Product and services penetration in the resource- and experience-constrained market of small- to medium-sized buildings has been a difficult challenge for building efficiency vendors over the years. But this is a market of significant size. It was almost a foregone conclusion, then, that vendors in search of new market niches and the profits that lie therein would come up with solutions to meet their needs. Among the keys to finding affordable solutions for this market are the sometimes significant gains that can be attained with relatively simple adjustments to operational parameters and other low hanging fruit projects.

"It was almost a foregone conclusion, then, that vendors in search of new market niches and the profits that lie therein would come up with solutions to meet their needs."

Tom Machinchick

Principal research analyst, Navigant Research

With the right technology and analytics, these types of energy savings are now comparatively easy to identify — in some cases, without even entering the building. Gridium, I’m in Control, and EnergyAi are all companies that offer lite and inexpensive solutions to smaller businesses that simply do not have the resources, capital or time to fiddle with building optimization projects. Dollar-wise, the savings might be small when compared to larger buildings, but these savings can matter deeply to the bottom lines of businesses of this size.

Serving a promising future

There is so much more going on in the energy-efficient building technologies market. As a service offerings, enabling financial programs and structures, utility incentives, the Internet of Things, mobile solutions, technology that assists the energy efficiency sales and distribution process, and tenant-facing interfaces are just a few of the areas where advancements are taking place. These technologies and offerings are serving to broaden and deepen the overall market, making energy efficiency more affordable and more accessible than ever before.

So, are energy-efficient building technologies reaching their stride? From the vantage point of today, it appears so. Thirty or so years from now, however, today’s building technologies may look as basic and antiquated as a Commodore 64 PC does when compared to the smartphones people carry around in their pockets. The future of energy efficient buildings looks promising if this momentum of innovation continues.    

Filed Under: Energy & Utilities Buildings & Housing
Top image credit: Ryan McKnight (Industry Dive)