The concept of decarbonization typically calls attention to the energy sources or inefficient systems that drive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions upward—in order to decarbonize, we must reduce our usage of, or replace, these sources or systems.
What’s important to understand, however, is how the infrastructures that rely on these current energy sources or systems operate, and how we must intelligently approach decarbonization in more ways than one. The good news is, a calibrated approach to decarbonization doesn’t have to just include plans to lower emissions. It can simultaneously improve infrastructures and optimize controls when focused on a heavily understated area: buildings.
Globally, buildings account for nearly 40% of CO2 emissions, making them a prime target for sustainability initiatives to tackle head-on. Having the ambition to decarbonize buildings can also expand beyond the reduction of CO2 emissions; it can be combined with advanced building controls, IoT devices, distributed energy resources (DERs) and building management systems (BMS) to lower GHG emissions and make the building smarter and more efficient. The end result is a healthier, more sustainable building whose emission profile has also been effectively reduced via sophisticated software and renewable resources.
How is this even possible? Let’s explore the capabilities of the technologies and strategies that can make decarbonization through the electrification and the digitalization of buildings happen.
The Decarbonization Roadmap
Before businesses align any sustainability initiatives with building controls or upgrades in the BMS, they must follow a roadmap that outlines their process from beginning to end. This must be established at the very beginning, as a decarbonization roadmap provides details on how companies can systematically approach the installations, optimizations, and maintenance work required to decarbonize the system—and keep it that way.
Decarbonization roadmaps typically contain three steps:
- Strategize: Define success and set science-based targets, create decarbonization roadmaps and governance, fund initiative and communicate commitment
- Digitize: Modernize buildings systems, monitor assets and emissions, identify savings and inefficiencies, report and benchmark progress
- Decarbonize: Electrify operations, reduce energy use, replace with renewables, and engage value chain
Ideally, these steps will guide the collaboration between facility management, building operators and the C-suite of the organization towards net-zero carbon building goals. Businesses with a sound strategy can provide the foundational set up for the organization to utilize the next two steps, especially digitization, where strategy can drive relevant solutions for the structure. Examples such as low-carbon replacements for legacy hardware or a SaaS-driven energy management system ran in the cloud represent solutions that can address building decarbonization through physical assets and digitization.
Deploying a decarbonization strategy has proven to be the most effective strategy for businesses to keep their net-zero goals alive. It not only decreases emissions, but it can also have a positive impact on a company’s efficiency, resiliency, competitive advantage, and bottom line.
Building Controls & DERs—Essential Pieces of The Puzzle
Following the decarbonization roadmap means implementing the correct infrastructural “parts” to enable a building to balance its emissions, optimize its resource utilization and even generate its own energy as a sustainable, net-zero structure. The identification of the solutions and hardware needed will depend on the structure—a hospital, for example, will need different data-collection and management systems than an office building. The DERs that power or enable the allocation of energy, however, will likely be similar for most structures, and should be a base consideration for any facility management department looking to decarbonize their infrastructure.
For example, backup generators, lithium-ion storage batteries and solar panels can be combined as DERs to provide the building with reliable, productive energy throughout the day when attached to a microgrid or grid-enabled distribution network. Microgrid systems and analytics help to efficiently and proactively manage energy production and make real-time, predictive, autonomous decisions to optimize energy consumption. As renewable energy sources grow in accessibility stemming from greater affordability and efficiency each year, so do the decarbonization strategies to use DERs as a means of replacement for high-carbon energy resources.
These DERs can provide optimized energy utilization when paired with advanced, digitized building controls that can monitor energy usage throughout the entire structure. A BMS can use centralized energy management software, for example, to create data visualization reports for facility managers and building operators to analyze data collected from IoT devices that monitor temperature change, occupancy fluctuation and HVAC usage. This enables adaptations by the organization depending on the issue that needs resolution, such as an overdistribution of electricity to a room that doesn’t need it, or an alarm that equipment or an IoT device is not performing as intended and warrants replacement or repair.
This software can also be algorithmically automated to make changes without human intervention, reducing costs in the long run and providing a significant improvement to both efficiency and sustainability as updates are made in real-time. These operations can be managed and automated through the configuration of control settings and work with integrated hardware and software to keep the system healthy. Simple changes like room occupancy HVAC utilization can easily be adjusted multiple times a day by an efficient automated energy management system, and if the structure has an on-site DER that generated electricity like a solar array, for example, the load stress can be effectively reduced. The remaining energy can then either be allocated to where it is needed most or stored for future use as surplus.
Decarbonization and System Management
Once the system is up and running with the optimal tools to sustainably operate the building, the system must be regularly maintained and managed to address ongoing issues. This ensures DER and BMS compatibility remains sound and protects the cloud-based building software from cyberattacks.
Organizations will also find it important to utilize third-party resources to analyse the health of their building and its energy profile from time to time to eliminate bias and identify core areas that need the most resources for maintenance and upgrades. For example, the Fitwel building certification provides a third-party recognition of policies and infrastructures that provide measurement tools and guidelines to align the organization with Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) metrics, keeping the business in line with its desired sustainable business practices.
Achieving Net-Zero Status Requires an All-Hands Approach
There is no one-size-fits-all plan for net-zero decarbonization strategies. Facility management and business leadership, however, can come together to establish what tools and resources can be used to take advantage of the advanced building controls that can transform their buildings. By using DERs, upgraded BMSs and a sound decarbonization approach from the beginning, organizations can achieve sustainable success in the buildings and energy space with a viable net-zero strategy.
As time passes and goals shift, flexible systems that can easily connect to evolving processes are key to keeping decarbonization progress within a building system intact. A healthy planet isn’t just an option, it’s a necessity. While buildings are a major emissions producer, they also offer organizations the opportunity to take action and reduce emissions, limit contributions to global warming, and meet ambitious climate goals.
—Luis D’Acosta is EVP, Digital Energy Division at Schneider Electric.