Latest from Building Automation

Returning to the Roots of Building Automation

April 9, 2010
Getting back to the original intent of BAS: managing energy consumption

If you were to trace building automation systems (BAS) to their roots in the 1960s and '70s, you would see their main purpose was the management of energy consumption. In fact, "energy-management systems" (EMS) was the common term for these systems when I entered the controls industry during the late 1980s.

The more sophisticated controls have become, the more we have taken the energy-management function of building automation for granted and the more control-system vendors, in an attempt to differentiate their offerings, have focused their marketing efforts on other functions. The energy scares of the 1970s and '80s turned out to be temporary, allowing consumers to refocus on managing comfort and convenience, with little thought about wastefulness and depletion of resources.

Heel and Toe
Low energy costs have brought about "best practices" that inherently are inefficient in their use of energy. Take the air-handling unit, for instance. It draws air from outside a building, cools it, pipes it around the building, and then reheats it. At each step of the process, energy is consumed. As long as energy is cheap, one could argue, this is OK, but, to me, it seems incredibly inefficient.

Imagine driving your car with one foot on the brake pedal and the other on the gas pedal. Race-car drivers use this technique, called "heel and toe," to better control their cars, but it hardly is efficient.

So, up to this point, we have been driving our buildings with the bravado of a race-car driver. Sure, we think our buildings perform better, but they do not perform efficiently—or at least not as efficiently as they could.

Enter Connectivity Technologies
With all of the digital devices automating sensors, actuators, fans, and other equipment during the 1990s, the potential, value, and variety of control systems grew. Soon, it became apparent those systems were not designed to work together, and many multibuilding owners found themselves with systems that did not talk to one another. Out of the resulting frustration grew the open-systems movement.

At the same time, the world saw the birth and growth of the Internet, specifically Internet Protocol (IP), which has driven the expanse of the Internet and World Wide Web to all manners of applications, from entertainment to online gaming, education to e-commerce, and travel planning to social interactions. It was only a matter of time before IP was adopted as the networking protocol of choice for BAS, which is where we are today.

While it will be years before the existing stock of proprietary control systems is replaced, gateways and integration platforms make the information in building controls available on some form of IP.

The convergence of automation and the Internet is not unique to buildings. Many other industries have evolved in a similar manner. The Internet of people steadily is becoming the Internet of things—of all manner of devices, sensors, automation controllers, and machines large and small. From electric toothbrushes to cars, farm machinery to HVAC units, global-positioning-system-enabled parking meters to running shoes, smart and ever-connected microprocessor-driven devices are talking to each other using myriad IP-centric wireline and wireless networks.

Building control systems now are intrinsically connected to each other and to pretty much all other systems on the planet. This connectivity reaches complex enterprise systems designed to wring every ounce of efficiency out of the systems they control, from manufacturing, supply chain, financial, and accounting to resource management.

The Coming of the Third Industrial Revolution
There have been two industrial revolutions. The first occurred during the late 18th/early 19th century and was instigated by two major developments: the printing press and steam power. The printing press allowed information to be mass-distributed; an author's words could be read by thousands within days, a far cry from the days books were hand-copied by monks. Steam power allowed humans to be industrious beyond the strength of their bodies and that of animals; it allowed goods to be produced in a fraction of the time they could be produced by hand and enabled the production of goods that previously were difficult or impossible to make. Meanwhile, new modes of transportation by way of train and steamboat improved trade and aided land expansion and settlement.

The second industrial revolution occurred around the start of the 20th century. It was brought about by another pair of developments: (1) petroleum, internal combustion, and electricity and (2) the telephone and telegraph. Internal-combustion engines revolutionized transportation, yielding the automobile. Electricity brought power to homes and factories, changing the fabric of social activity and the world of commerce. Telecommunications by way of the telephone and telegraph enabled humans to transport information significant distances.

Characteristic of both industrial revolutions was a combination of new forms of energy and new forms of communications. These are the most fundamental components of human existence. We are on the cusp of a third industrial revolution, one brought about by major shifts in energy and communications.

On the energy front, we are witnessing a major shift, from fossil-based fuels to renewable resources. There are myriad reasons for this, many of which are somewhat controversial. The reality is humans cannot continue to consume the earth's resources at the current rate of growth and westernization of many of the world’s populations. Roughly 1 billion people on this planet enjoy the western way of life, and in the coming decades, another billion or so will have this level of life quality. The planet simply cannot handle this growth.

Climate change is another reason for the energy shift; we simply have to reduce our levels of carbon emissions if the human race is to survive. Perhaps the most significant drivers of responsible energy habits are global politics and the state of the economy. Our reliance on suppliers of fossil-based fuels simply is not tenable. If we continue on our current path, we will see an increasing amount of global conflict driven by the need for energy, increasing terrorism, and political instability that undermines national security. A shift to renewable-energy sources is critical to our future.

The medium best suited to transfer renewable energy to consuming devices is electricity. Once converted to electricity, a source of energy is fundamentally clean for transportation and use. So more and more energy consumption will be via electrons. The electrification of the world (for the second time) will be upon us in the coming decades.

On the communications front, we are witnessing the changes the Internet brings on a daily basis. Try to imagine our lives today without the Internet. I need not say more on how the Internet has changed our lives in the last 10 years or so.

Smart Grid Enters Stage Left
The electric grid of today is a magnificent piece of engineering, yet quite dumb. The current grid basically transports electrons from generation to consumption in one direction. Because electricity is not storable, its supply and consumption have to be equal at all times. The supply of electricity is the only mechanism of controlling this critical balance.

We cannot increase generation capacity using fossil-fuel-based plants for reasons of carbon emissions. So we turn to renewable generation in the form of solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear power. We also turn to information technology to manage demand-side consuming devices. The sad fact is that solar and wind generation are unpredictable sources of energy that cannot be turned on and off on demand, so the electric grid must be able to influence consuming devices and entities to reduce loads when power is not available. That is not possible without Smart Grid, the intersection of renewable energy/electricity and the Internet.

Buildings Are a Critical Component of Smart Grid
Smart Grid essentially is about controlling the consumers of energy. In the United States, about 72 percent of generated electricity is consumed by buildings. About 40 percent of that is consumed by large buildings. Many, if not most, of those buildings are controlled by BAS that increasingly are interconnected with each other and the Internet. A BAS's main functions are to sense changes in a combination of input parameters, interpret that data as appropriate for the facility’s needs, and control devices, which result in a variety of benefits, from occupant comfort to operational efficiencies.

Smart Grid needs large energy loads that can be configured automatically to be part of the balancing act required for the successful operation of the future electricity system. Buildings and BAS are ideal partners in this model.

The new EMS
During the energy crises of the 1970s and '80s, the goal of energy management was to reduce costs. When energy prices returned to "normal" during the 1990s, the push to manage building energy consumption lost significant momentum. When the current energy concerns began to emerge around 2008, many BAS experts expected a repeat of the temporary crises of the 1970s and '80s. But the situation today is very different, driven by the reasons outlined above.

In the coming years, energy will be bought and sold in real time, and this will be a key mechanism in required electricity-system balancing. When demand increases and generation capacity is insufficient, the spot cost of electricity will increase. Wise consumers of electricity will install systems that constantly monitor energy prices and adjust consumption accordingly, using a complex array of parameters, including occupant requirements, business data, thermal mass, and live sensor data.

New EMS will have a different value proposition than their predecessors, creating efficiencies not just within buildings, but as integrated components of a broader energy system (Smart Grid). The connectivity technology we now have in place is the critical enabler of this level of integration.

The shift in meaning and scope of "energy management" will present significant opportunities to the building-automation and HVAC industries. One way we can think about the value of this opportunity is the concept that 1 Mw of energy not consumed is as valuable as 1 Mw of energy generated. If a utility spends a couple billion dollars building a 1,000-Mw generation plant, the capital-expenditure value of reducing a load by 1 Mw is over a million dollars. Much of that can be achieved through controls and better HVAC-system design.

So, the next time you look at a building, think of it as a potential "power plant," only cleaner.

Anto Budiardjo is president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Clasma Events Inc., organizer of conferences and events focused on the intersection of energy and information technology, including ConnectivityWeek, BuilConn, and GridWeek. Recipient of the 2005 Frost & Sullivan Building Technologies CEO of the Year award, he has held executive-level marketing and product-development positions with several controls companies.

Did you find this article useful? Send comments and suggestions to Executive Editor Scott Arnold at [email protected].