Smart and sustainable buildings

Rebecca Lambert talks to Microsoft's Bill Mitchel, senior director of Worldwide Public Sector, about how cities can implement innovative technologies in order to reduce the carbon footprints of their energy-intensive buildings

Rebecca Lambert
Rebecca Lambert
By Rebecca Lambert on 30 June 2014
Smart and sustainable buildings

This article was first published in the Summer 2014 issue of Touch

Climate change is top of the agenda for government leaders today. President Obama recently proposed regulations to significantly reduce the greenhouse gases produced by power plants across every US state. China has said that it will put a cap on its carbon dioxide emissions by as early as 2016. And in Europe, the EU has made a commitment to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions from its 28 member states by 20% compared to 1990 levels. It plans to achieve this by 2020.

Aside from targeting power plants, as well as the transportation, waste management and industrial sectors, government leaders are also putting huge emphasis on the role that cities – and specifically cities’ buildings and infrastructures – can play in helping to reduce greenhouse gases. Why? Because, according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, buildings account for around 40% of global energy consumption. They are also one of the highest producers of greenhouse gases. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that commercial and industrial buildings contribute 45%of the greenhouse gas footprint in the US. And, in 2013, CDP found that, together, the 110 global cities that took part in its annual cities and climate change survey produce just over one billion metric tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year. To put that into context, it puts them on par with Japan – the world’s third largest economy and fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.

Meeting targets
The good news is that cities the world over are starting to introduce measures to reduce their greenhouse gas footprint. According to the CDP Cities 2013 report, of the 110 cities that took part in its survey, more than 70% said they have a plan for adapting to the effects of climate change. They also highlighted more than 1,000 individual actions they are taking to cut emissions.

“Many of the city leaders I talk to have carbon footprint targets to meet,” says Bill Mitchel, senior director of Worldwide Public Sector at Microsoft. “I’ve recently been speaking with leaders in a large US city on the West Coast, for example. They are wrestling with how to achieve efficiencies across their city. They have initiatives to drive sustainability to help the city grow from an economic standpoint, reduce carbon emissions and apply clean technologies to improve citizens’ quality of life. But when you start looking at the big systems that they are operating, you realise just how much they have to manage. Their city airport is, in effect, a microcosm of an entire city and consumes vast amounts of energy and water. You also have to take into account things such as the city’s arena, which hosts local concerts and sporting events. On top of that you have places such as the city zoo, public parking and the city campus. For each of these infrastructures you have a whole host of issues to manage – energy use, water supply, lighting, transportation, parking and so on.

“The interesting thing is there are a lot of point solutions available on the market today to help address any one of these issues,” Mitchel continues. “A city can choose from a portfolio of IT solutions and begin to optimise its infrastructure by having the ability to detect issues before they cause major problems, prioritise maintenance, and ensure parts of a building are running at optimum levels to reduce energy use.”

The public and private sectors have already made a great deal of progress by using these singular smart building technologies to drive efficiencies and reduce operating costs across individual buildings. According to Mitchel, though, the next step to creating a truly smart city is to integrate all these point solutions and start making sense of all the data they produce to make informed decisions. “When you achieve that, you can really start to understand how everything runs,” he says. “You can begin to detect patterns and determine when there will be peaks in demand for electricity, for example.”

Putting a smart strategy in place
Microsoft has already succeeded in demonstrating just how powerful a connected smart building solution can be. Last year it unveiled the results of a pilot project, which has seen the company turn its own 500-acre headquarters into a smart, energy-efficient campus.

In basic terms, the project involved stitching together 35,000 sensors across the campus to report on everything from the ideal time to turn lights on and off, to monitoring the ongoing battles between air conditioners and heaters. Then, a team led by Darrell Smith, Microsoft’s director of facilities and energy, with the help of vendors including ICONICS, applied an ‘internet of things meets big data’ approach to invent a data-driven software solution using exclusively off-the-shelf Microsoft software such as Microsoft Azure, SQL Server and Office. Today, the solution is slashing the cost of operating over 100 campus buildings by millions of dollars each year.

As soon as the system was turned on, Microsoft was able to fix a multitude of issues, some of which had gone unnoticed for months and years. For example, Smith and his team found that the exhaust fans in one garage had been left on mistakenly for a year, amounting to US$66,000 of wasted energy.

“Give me a little data and I’ll tell you a little,” said Smith in Microsoft’s story 88 Acres: How Microsoft Quietly Built the City of the Future. “Give me a lot of data and I’ll save the world.” Today, the team collects around 500 million data transactions every 24 hours, and the smart buildings software presents engineers with prioritised lists of misbehaving equipment.

“The success of 88 acres is based on the ability to carry out continuous commissioning and conditional maintenance – going through all the systems in a building and ensuring that they are running at optimum levels,” says Mitchel. “The concept of conditional maintenance originated with critical equipment, such as a jet engine on a commercial aircraft. These types of equipment transmit operational data whenever they’re running so that they can be monitored on an ongoing basis to check for faults and general wear and tear. Ultimately, you don’t want any system or piece of equipment to under perform or fail, so this approach significantly reduces the risk of that happening.”

The Microsoft smart campus project takes this concept and applies it on a larger scale. “Simply put, a building is an aggregation of systems,” says Mitchel. “Our solution identifies all of the individual components and pulls all of the data they produce to achieve campus wide visual maintenance.”

The plan now is to take Microsoft’s smart buildings approach worldwide and help governments and businesses turn their buildings and, eventually, cities into data-driven brains. “88 acres is an anchor for us,” says Mitchel. “We’re showing how we can apply Microsoft and partner solutions, and underpin them with a state-of-the-art approach to create efficient, smart buildings. It’s applying the process to the technology that delivers the results; the strategy is key.”

More recently, as part of the Seattle 2030 District initiative – a public-private collaborative of downtown Seattle property owners and managers that has established a 50% energy use reduction goal by 2030 – Microsoft has been conducting a pilot using Accenture’s Smart Building & Energy Solutions, which identifies and implements energy savings opportunities, alongside Azure cloud technology.

The energy management software is being used in a number of buildings, including the Seattle Municipal Tower, Sheraton Hotel, Boeing and the University of Washington School of Medicine’s research building, and will be rolled out to more buildings over the coming months and years. The solution collects data from the myriad of systems in those buildings and uses data analytics to provide a prescriptive approach to how the building management systems can be tuned to improve energy efficiency. The pilot is expected to help Seattle achieve energy and maintenance savings of between 10% and 25%.

By using the latest IT to make buildings smarter and more efficient, Microsoft and its partners are helping cities such as Seattle reduce their carbon footprint and address climate change. “IT innovation is the foundation of 21st century smart cities,” says Mitchel. “Cloud and big data technologies in particular will help leaders deliver services that make cities competitive and sustainable. I believe that we’re only just beginning to tap into the potential of the technology that we have to create truly smart and efficient cities.”

Read the Touch Summer 2014 cover story to find out how ICONICS is helping the Washington Athletic Club save more than US$200,000 per year on its energy bills.

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