It’s Easy Being Green: Smart Buildings for Future Skylines

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Hiding within the halls of homes and office buildings around the United States exists the largest opportunity for energy savings to date. Commercial and industrial buildings account for as much as 50 percent of U.S. energy use, and residential buildings account for another 20 percent, meaning that there are countless ways for them to be more efficient. Many Americans have taken steps to go green in their homes, but office buildings still have a long way to go.

Office buildings, particularly in cities that have passed laws that mandate energy savings goals, have made great strides in using green building technologies such as lighting, roofing, and insulation. While these buildings have made vast improvements in how they’re built, they haven’t improved in how they communicate with other buildings or the power grid that supplies energy to the region.

By coordinating efforts, buildings can become more efficient by automating energy saving techniques. “The sad truth is that many green buildings today are neither highly efficient nor particularly intelligent, and this is a missed opportunity,” wrote Paul Ehrlich of the Building Intelligence Group in an article discussing the results of an energy conference held in early 2008.

Many offices in the United States have made progress. They’ve added improvements like bicycle racks, more efficient lighting, and water-saving plumbing equipment. But the next step, according to Ehrlich, is making sure that these innovations connect with one another. Green buildings not only employ physical innovations such as green roofs, but also, Ehrlich notes, “[…] the systems, controls, and automation needed to provide improved scheduling, coordination, optimization and usability.”

Green building, up to this point, has been primarily about materials. While using eco-friendly building supplies helps improve the overall energy footprint for the building, these efforts can prove inadequate if not matched with efficiency management equipment. To combat this pitfall, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 provides a framework for “net zero” energy buildings. These buildings, according to Jack McGowan at the U.S. Department of Energy, enshrine the idea that “[…] buildings can give and take energy—that’s where the opportunity presents itself.” His vision, McGowan states, “is having the smart building meet the smart grid.”

Smart grids, or digitally redesigned power grids, are being implemented in cities and rural communities across the United States. Smart girds use new efficiency methods that prioritize the needs of different buildings in order to decrease the overall demand on the energy delivery system. By coordinating energy use throughout a region, they also have the ability to decrease strain on the system that often leads to devastating blackouts. According to a 2008 report by the Department of Energy, had a smart grid system been in place during the Northeast blackout of 2003, it could have saved almost $6 billion in economic loss to the region. That same report notes that if the smart gird made the United States grid system just 5 percent more efficient, it would mean decreases in greenhouse gasses equivalent to taking 53 million cars off the road.

While green building in the United States is making progress, innovation and automation are lacking. Smart buildings have the capacity to automate power-saving methods throughout an entire region by connecting with the smart grid. By automating lights and temperature controls, for example during the warmer months of summer, the smart grid can shift air conditioning to buildings that need it more than others, allowing not only lower energy consumption and cost for individual buildings, but also less strain on the entire system. By implementing regional control of energy use through the use of smart buildings—and the smart grid—the United States can take the lead in managing one of the most efficient and secure power systems of the 21st century.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series