Danfoss, a leading manufacturer of high efficiency electronic and mechanical components and controls for HVACR and motion systems, recently held its 19th EnVisioneering Symposium, “Building and Energy Infrastructure,” at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

The symposium brought together 50 leaders from HVAC equipment manufacturers, building consultancies and contractors, utilities, advocacy groups and experts in research and policy. Among their discussions was a look at new opportunities in next generation energy technology for commercial buildings. Specifically, participants focused on the impact of natural gas prices and advances in solar, storage, demand response and micro-grids on the potential of commercial buildings and the implications for a whole-building-systems-based building standards and market value.

Current events — such as the transformative conditions facing the building community, by volatility in electrical power and building markets, and opportunities for new paths in equipment design and building delivery — helped to frame the presentations. Speakers included:

  • Thomas W. Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy
  • R. Neal Elliott, Associate Director for Research, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
  • Dr. James Freihaut, Chief Scientist, U.S. DoE Energy Efficient Buildings Hub
  • Mick Schwedler, Manager, Applications Engineering, Trane
  • Karen Sweeney, VP for Diversity and Inclusion, Turner Construction Company
  • Stephen Selkowitz, Senior Advisor for Building Science, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Drake Erbe, VP of Market Development, Airxchange, Inc.
  • Richard Lord, Engineering Fellow, Carrier Corporation.

U.S. Navy's Net-Zero Goals
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy Thomas W. Hicks keynoted the symposium, outlining the Navy's goals, strategy and practices for energy use and energy efficiency.

As “the world's 9-1-1” responder, the U.S. Navy maintains global operations relying heavily on foreign energy and dependent on the ready availability of energy and fuel. But the Navy's access to energy is subject to both price and geopolitical volatility — forces that impact the entire building market but have recently hit the Navy with special force.

In response, the Navy has set energy goals that are nothing less than transformational. At the top of its list, It seeks to have 50% of its installations operating at net-zero energy by 2020. For an institution that is the very definition of “mission critical” in America's national security system and facing big budget challenges, such goals are a tall order.

Among its steps to achieve that goal, Hicks described a Navy turning increasingly to micro-grid technology. “We need to take the cost advantages from smart grids — and demand response and demand reductions — and marry those with the security benefits we might be able to get from micro-grids,” Hicks explained.

Achieving the Navy's energy mission will require a major shift in public awareness and institutional culture. But the technological shift focuses especially on the capacity to integrate and leverage subsystems, a capacity dramatically enhanced by greater reliance on smaller, independent, more flexible power grids.

Natural Gas Possibility, Availability, and Cost
Dr. James Freihaut, chief scientist at the Energy Efficient Buildings Hub, opened the session on the changing cost of electricity, underscoring the link between grid innovation and new building possibilities opened by the natural gas revolution being witnessed in electrical power generation.

Natural gas can also mean greater flexibility — in how and where electricity is generated and how energy-related building systems can be integrated. 

The micro-grids now being increasingly relied upon by the Navy are one instance, as low-cost natural gas opens opportunities for local power generation if that capacity is paired with a micro-grid. Local generation and micro-grid deployment opens, in turn, wider possibilities for innovations in whole building systems that are decisive for significant efficiency enhancements. 

But the threshold questions, of course, are “Will natural gas be more plentiful?”  and if so, “At what cost?”

R. Neal Elliott, associate director for research at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, outlined why natural gas would be a “game changer” for the building and energy industries, but would not weaken the push for higher efficiencies.

The shale gas coming to market today, Elliott explained, represents a dramatically new energy resource. Directional drilling, enhanced recovery gained by hydraulic fracturing and advanced seismology have, taken together, produced a flood of low-cost natural gas. 

However, Elliott thinks the price consequences of the natural gas revolution are more complex than suggested by recent headlines. As the price of gas falls, consumption will rise. A return of higher economic growth will further drive demand, as will surges in new markets. 

Therefore, natural gas will be available, but the commodity price will be volatile and market pressures will be upward. Major consumers will be compelled to hedge the price, adding additional consumer cost. 

Energy efficiency will remain the best first choice and will remain cost effective in the energy marketplace. The “all in” price, including the cost of hedging against volatility, will be $6 to $8 per MMBtu to the customer, not the $4 commodity some have been touting. Therefore, with the cost of saved energy closer to $2 per MMBtu and the ultimate impact of natural gas on electricity prices negligible, energy efficiency will remain a marketplace winner.

Still, natural gas will be available in vast quantities, with all the new prospects for generation flexibility that it implies. To reap those benefits fully, Elliott suggested, the building community would need to turn to performance-based metrics and codes.

The Whole Building Systems Opportunity
Freihaut highlighted a major implication of the natural gas revolution, even with prices higher than some now expect: vastly greater flexibility in building design and even communities of buildings. This fact helps open a range of new possibilities in advancing another building revolution — in whole building systems strategies.

The rise of natural gas means that onsite power generation capabilities can be more readily deployed, with the consequence that buildings and clusters of them can be much less reliant on the grid. As a result, a new possibility opens for other onsite power sources, like combined heat and power, to play a complementary role. Yet, more broadly, buildings can be viewed as a source of primary energy, and that energy, when recognized, can become part of the comprehensive building equation when planning a building that leverages one facet off another in the move toward net zero — either for a given building or a community of them.

Two major obstacles persist: the lack of systemic data on building performance and the lack of consensus on building metrics. Since research and development on buildings pales before that which is committed to other industries and the building industry is itself highly fragmented, a special effort is going to be needed to drive the cultural shift required to upgrade research and the dialogue between segments of the building industry required to drive consensus.

The payoff, however, can be substantial. Less grid dependence and a more holistic building design strategy not only means direct energy savings, but also saving throughout the building delivery process.

Karen Sweeney, vice president at Turner Construction, expressed the point succinctly. “Within construction industry processes, there is a history of considerable waste, which we are working to reduce.”

Holistic building design means thoughtful, resourceful and collaborative planning and efficiently executed delivery processes, which, in turn, means the chance to more widely employ lean processes.

Whole Building Systems – The Communications Challenge
Stephen Selkowitz of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory pointed out that efficiency gains in the U.S. economy since the 1970s are already saving $700 billion a year compared to a “business as usual” baseline. Nonetheless, he foresees that making the basic changes required for highly efficient holistic buildings would save an additional $200 billion a year, but also require a major communication effort to fully implement new research and development findings. “To routinely deliver high-performance, low-energy buildings, we must find a balance between people, policy, markets and economy, innovation, technology, and process.”

Central to achieving that balance is the challenge of communicating the benefits of strongly integrated systems in a way that includes improved occupant comfort, satisfaction and performance. 

To help address that challenge, Richard Lord, fellow, Carrier Corporation, and Drake Erbe, vice president market development, Airxchange, presented a ground-breaking report that represents the culmination of nearly a decade of work on the possibility and value of an integrated whole-building design, delivery and maintenance strategy. 

Erbe and Lord outlined the challenges of “max tech:” the cost of improved efficiency is becoming prohibitively high, the added gains are getting smaller, and most decisively, the very possibility of improved efficiency is coming up against absolute limits imposed by the laws of thermodynamics. There is little efficiency yet to be gained through a component-based approach, much is at a cost the marketplace will not accept.

Whole systems and hybrid sub-systems, however, offer a new opportunity. A relatively simple hybrid system illustrates the broader concept. Two or more technologies are combined in a system design. Then, during the course of the annual use cycle, each technology is activated when it delivers the most benefit. It is, of course, necessary to design some type of combined rating system to assess overall performance, but technologies as diverse as airside economizers, hydronic economizers, integrated exhaust air energy recovery, evaporative condenser, evaporative precoolers and solar assist units can be brought together to achieve systemic efficiencies far beyond the reach of improved components and more cost effective.

Metrics for such innovations are not yet generally available, but steps are being taken. As Mick Schwedler, manager, applications engineering at Trane, suggested, it is critical that new metrics be selected carefully so that the right behaviors are encouraged.One example is the Air-Conditioning Heating and Refrigeration Institute's (AHRI) innovative Guideline V that provides a full load rating for a combination of an air cooled packaged product (AHRI 340/360) and an energy recovery device (AHRI 1060). While only a full load metric is now available, work has already begun on one for part load, and many systems could benefit from similar efforts.

Leading industry standard organizations have recognized the opportunity of a systems approach — and even its inevitability — and are taking steps to support it.  AHRI has established a new Systems Working Group with the mandate to develop a way forward using standards, certification and innovative tools designed to alter the path of national energy policy for buildings, from a prescriptive, component-based to a systems/sub-systems approach. The group is focused on commercial systems and has recognized the need for its proposals to be well-defined, justified, credible and verifiable. Similarly, ASHRAE 90.1, which over the past decade has achieved its set goals with a conventional, component-based standard, has now established an Advanced Energy Standards Group to develop new standards using a systems approach.

Conclusion
By any standard, a systems and sub-systems approach to building energy efficiency offers the greatest opportunity to reach the next level of efficiency targets. The transition will require an entire infrastructure be developed to support a Building Energy Quotient and then a building labeling program to measure and reward performance. The implications of the proposed reforms for the industry's working agenda are, to say the least, challenging. The goal of a systems/sub-systems energy efficiency regime, however, is increasingly recognized as the path of the future, albeit explored to date by a handful of innovators at the frontier.

Meeting that goal will require research, innovation and vision, but it will also require a new emphasis on communication — communicating necessary ideas and opportunities to an industry challenged to meet aspirations for efficiency that will otherwise exceed its grasp.