Courtesy of Eaton
Eaton’s specialized Innovation Center in Brossard, Quebec, near Montreal, focuses on digital technologies for distributed energy resources (DERs).

3 Ways to Energize More Sustainable Buildings

March 11, 2024
There’s never been a better time to decarbonize buildings. The energy transition and electrification are surging forward, underscoring the importance of using electricity more wisely. These three strategies can simplify the journey toward a more sustainable future.

There’s never been a better time to decarbonize buildings. The energy transition and electrification are surging forward while advancements in digitalization can help the most intensive applications use energy more intelligently. Industry and businesses are coming together to take action on climate change. And government policies are helping accelerate investments in a clean energy future.

Already, buildings require a lot of power, accounting for about 40% of U.S. energy consumption. As electrification of transport and building systems takes off, buildings will need even more electricity. So, the impact of using electricity more wisely is crucial to support decarbonization, as well as business continuity and controlling energy costs.

From implementing renewables to adding intelligent energy management and control, there are vast opportunities for building energy systems to work harder and smarter to accelerate decarbonization. Whether you’re just getting started or looking to take the next step toward net zero, there are powerful strategies you can put into place today to help you simplify the journey toward a more sustainable future.

1. Take Advantage of Energy Transition Opportunities

While the specific trends impacting building energy systems are somewhat dependent on industry and building type, building owners and managers are steadily transitioning fossil-fueled processes to electric alternatives and using more distributed energy resources (DERs). We’re seeing customers deploying combined heat and power (CHP), heat pumps, solar-plus-storage systems and more. This shift is opening the door to create energy systems that do more for sustainability, reliability and the bottom line.

It's important to consider how you’ll manage your DERs. Traditional building systems are not sufficient to maximize the return on those investments. Your building management system can, for example, provide visibility (monitoring), but it’s not sufficient to really leverage the strength of those assets. You need to integrate, optimize and control those assets into your energy system—enabling far more flexibility in how, when and where you use electricity. 

Microgrids provide a powerful lever to manage and optimize DERs. By incorporating and intelligently managing onsite energy resources, you can stretch your energy systems to help reduce emissions. Microgrid controllers are the important piece of the puzzle here. The controller is the brains of the microgrid system—automatically transitioning from grid power to on-site power sources when it senses an outage or demand charges are highest. It maintains overall system stability while dynamically managing generating assets and critical site loads by controlling where, when and how energy is produced and consumed.

Microgrids can also help your building energy system serve as an electric grid. When your building serves as a grid, it’s easier to get the power you need and make your infrastructure work better and harder to meet your needs. In this new energy landscape, buildings can become energy hubs that generate, use and potentially even sell energy back to the local utility to create new revenue streams.

2. Embrace Smart Approaches to Manage Electrification

Electrification has a cascading impact on energy infrastructure—from the grid to your building. As more buildings and facilities progressively replace carbon-based fuels with renewables and electrified alternatives, and as the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) increases, creative solutions to manage electrical loads are vital.

When it comes to adding electrified building systems or EV charging to your energy infrastructure, it’s important to avoid an ad hoc approach that simply bolts on electric solutions such as heat pumps or EV chargers without proper integration. You risk encountering power management difficulties and grid upgrade costs when you invariably need to increase your incoming utility service capacity to accommodate higher demand.

Increasing electric service capacity is one of the biggest barriers to accommodate new energy demand. Those utility upgrades take time and it’s one of the reasons driving adoption of DERs like CHP or cogeneration. When you generate your own energy on-site, your energy plans are not fully reliant on the grid or your local utility.

For example, by integrating EV charging into your building energy systems and powering charging with onsite DERs, you can avoid capacity upgrades. This approach ensures a high level of service for drivers who want to charge their cars, and at the same time protects the electrical resilience of your building. This is important.

And when you do run out of electrical headroom, software platforms that automate intelligent load management provide a powerful tool to help avoid grid updates. Load management involves controlling your power demands to limit the total power applied to an electrical system. And EV load management enables you to install more chargers and electrify more without overloading your electrical system or increasing capacity.

These EV load management software platforms can monitor charging station energy usage in real time, reallocate power as available to other networked chargers, and balance energy demand across three-phase power systems—so you can avoid the costly infrastructure upgrades that are typically needed.

3. Recognize the Payoff of Energy Efficiency Investments

The old adage continues to ring true; the best energy is the energy you don’t use. A recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study shows that each dollar saved by a non-profit healthcare organization through better energy performance is equivalent to generating up to $20 in new revenues for hospitals (with a 5% profit margin) or $10 for medical offices (with a 10% profit margin). That means an energy efficiency project that saves $20,000 is equivalent to generating $400,000 in new revenues per year over the lifetime of the equipment.

Starting an energy efficiency and decarbonization project doesn’t require you to completely reimagine essential energy systems. The best way to start using energy more efficiently is to create a baseline measurement for energy performance and identify opportunities to optimize your energy usage (or simply using power more efficiently). Unlocking the ability to use power more effectively hinges on digital technologies.

These digital technologies are the connected devices, data models, insights and analytics that help transform power management by providing the actionable insights needed to prioritize improvements—and they play a major role in sustainability and decarbonization. 

For instance, sensors and monitoring platforms can pull real-time data from heating and cooling systems while monitoring environmental conditions. Artificial intelligence (AI) models can apply sophisticated algorithms to optimize power usage while learning and improving with each interaction. The cloud and edge provide the infrastructure for managing that data, while mechanisms such as digital twins provide new ways to visualize a building or an entire campus as a living, breathing entity with ever-changing energy and power requirements.

These tools remove the complexity from the once arduous task of determining where energy is being wasted and how potential upgrades will impact overall system performance. Today, there are digital tools specifically designed to baseline carbon emissions. Some electrical power monitoring systems (EPMS) offer an integrated capability that monitor and trend emissions data to identify possible improvements, develop a carbon reduction plan and lead sustainability efforts. These software platforms also provide real-time power and environmental system monitoring across a single facility or multiple locations throughout the world, helping organizations reduce power consumption, costs and unplanned downtime.

Now is the Best Time to Start Reducing Emissions

There’s assistance for those starting to pave the way to a clean energy future. Late last year, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was passed and will support approximately $370 billion in climate and energy proposals—including tax credits for clean energy technologies, such as solar, energy storage, microgrid controllers and other zero-emission electricity generating infrastructure.

These incentives can help propel clean energy projects. And while it isn’t realistic to completely overhaul electrical systems in short order, it’s important to begin thinking how you can create a more scalable, digital and electrified foundation ready for the demands of tomorrow.

The good news is that more than ever, building owners and managers have more of a forward-looking mindset. This is vital. It’s critical to make provisions now to enable more flexible energy infrastructure tomorrow. So that you can support the capabilities you need from your energy system today and into the future. This requires planning to avoid rebuilding, redoing or reworking infrastructure. It may seem overwhelming, but it’s an incremental process. It’s not about replacing energy systems but making them ready for whatever comes next, so you can easily deploy EV charging, renewable energy, energy storage and other carbon-friendly additions when you’re ready.

About the Author

Justin Carron

Justin Carron is director of buildings and campuses at Eaton.

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