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Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings: Scalable Approaches Depend On Utility Data and Engagement

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Back in 2001, research sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uncovered a startling figure: respondents of the human activity pattern survey reported spending on average 87% of their day in enclosed buildings.

Two decades later, that number is undoubtedly higher – elevated further with Coronavirus safety measures. Long story short: We spend a lot of time indoors. And the buildings we occupy consume a lot of energy…around 40% of total consumption in the U.S. 

Many of our existing buildings will be here for the next 50-100 years. We can’t start from scratch, so reducing emissions depends on making buildings more efficient. But we cannot stop there. We need to start thinking about our buildings as grid assets (grid-interactive efficient buildings).

What Does it Mean to Make Buildings a Grid Asset?

“Most utilities don’t consider the value buildings could provide to the distribution grid, particularly one with high penetration of distributed energy resources and more demand flexibility needs,” says Julia Eagles, Associate Director of Utility and Regulatory Strategy at the Institute for Market Transformation. “Approaching buildings as systems of connected components instead of isolated energy consumers can improve technology adoption and scalability, reduce implementation and operational costs, and maximize environmental, financial, resilience, and grid reliability outcomes.”  

Many in the building sector are working to make buildings grid assets. A new FOA from the U.S. Department of Energy is taking a market-based approach to grid-interactive efficient buildings (GEBs), seeking projects focused on making buildings smarter about the amount and timing of their energy use. Eagles says “IMT sees grid-interactive efficient buildings as critical to achieving building decarbonization and supporting a flexible grid. There’s a shift occurring in the industry regarding the overlap of efficiency with demand management, clean energy, and electrification. While demand management is most relevant to GEBs, we need a systems approach to creating high performing buildings and a modern, decarbonized grid.”

For these approaches to work at scale, leveraging utility systems and data will be key. That means understanding the ways utilities interact with the buildings they serve and identifying attainable first steps they can take to make GEBs a reality. 

Whole Building Benchmarking: Scaling Our Approach to Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings

Today, the industry is fragmented about the potential of GEBs, due in part to inconsistencies in utility engagement. Complete and historical building data lives in utility systems…and access to that information is wildly variable. 

We need whole building baselines for all building types: multifamily, mixed use commercial and residential, and more. We need more whole building benchmarking ordinances, building-level programs and data and privacy guidance for utilities. We need better mechanisms for data sharing and aggregation. Though energy consultants can define building-level consumption with smart building devices and systems, this approach won’t make buildings available to the grid at scale. That’s where utility enablement comes in. 

For valid reasons, utilities are slow to invest in a better understanding of the buildings they serve, and buildings as a data point are generally absent from their systems. However, any hope of an industry-scale GEB approach depends on utility engagement.

The Way Forward

What’s stalling utility investment? According to Eagles, the answer is multi-faceted: “Utilities tend to view buildings as energy consumers and contributors to associated carbon emissions. At the same time, their approach to energy efficiency in buildings has focused on reducing consumption while maintaining the same levels of service, with little attention to the timing and location of those savings. At IMT, we are working to flip the script — to envision an optimized energy system where high-performing buildings are major contributors to decarbonization and load flexibility.”

Incremental progress always comes first. With that in mind, there are steps utilities should take today. Nothing can be done to quantify and optimize buildings as assets until they are defined and baselined. Whether it’s leveraging a vendor for managing building-level data or altering internal data structures to reflect the buildings in a service territory, a GEB approach requires recognizing buildings. Whole building benchmarking can be the first step in a process that increases opportunities and mitigates risk. 

As the distribution grid becomes more complex and bi-directional, voltage and power quality are at risk. Once buildings are defined, we need to recognize the grid impacts as more electric vehicle chargers, solar PV, energy storage, and other distributed energy resources (DER) are installed. Eagles explains, “By incorporating buildings as a resource into integrated resource and distribution planning, utilities can avoid the potential risks of DER and plan for how building load can be coordinated with grid needs.”

At a time when climate change mandates exploring every possible strategy for reducing consumption, using buildings as assets at scale must be a part of the solution.


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