Integrating commercial buildings, utilities with the Smart Grid

Knowing where and how much power is needed allows the Smart Grid to adjust power distribution in real time. The agility of matching power demand with power production minimizes the amount of power that generating facilities must dump, and keeps base-load plants running at minimum capacity. This article explores the relationship between utilities, the Smart Grid, and commercial buildings through the consulting engineer’s eyes.


 Steven Collier, director, Smart Grid Strategies, Milsoft Utility Solutions, Abilene, TexasJohn Cooper, business development manager, Business Transformation Services, Siemens Power Technologies International, Schenectady, N.Y.Chris Edward, PE; electrical engineer; KJWW; IndianapolisKevin Krause, PE, LEED AP; principal; Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis.

Meet our Smart Grid roundtable participants

  • Steven Collier, director, Smart Grid Strategies, Milsoft Utility Solutions, Abilene, Texas
  • John Cooper, business development manager, Business Transformation Services, Siemens Power Technologies International, Schenectady, N.Y.
  • Chris Edward, PE; electrical engineer; KJWW; Indianapolis
  • Kevin Krause, PE, LEED AP; principal; Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis.

Figure 1: A sophisticated BAS at the projected LEED Platinum Gateway Building assists Oberlin College in its commitment to environmental sustainability. Courtesy: Solomon Cordwell BuenzQ: Integration of facilities’ varied electrical and mechanical systems into building automation systems (BAS) is becoming more prevalent. How is your firm meeting this need?

Chris Edward: Design for the new Gateway Building at Oberlin College in Ohio was recently completed by our Indianapolis and Quad Cities offices. This mixed-use hotel, retail, and office building is pursuing LEED Platinum. It required a highly customized BAS to be coordinated and specified (see Figure 1). A geothermal field serves radiant heating and cooling throughout the building and is assisted by automated natural ventilation and window shading. The lighting control system provides 0-10 V dc daylighting feedback and scheduling access, while power monitoring, fire alarm, and access control systems integrate with the BAS. The college provides for all buildings on campus to display energy and water performance on a Web portal to encourage efficiency by the users.

KJWW often uses the BAS as a common platform in these high-performance buildings to automate building control functions and to bring viewable information together for the owner’s benefit.

Kevin Krause: Building operations are simultaneously challenged by the increasing complexity of integrated systems and financial and human resource limitations. Systems integration and analytics are a means of doing more with less.

As a global standard-setting biomedical research center, the 300,000-sq-ft Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison represents state-of-the-art and state-of-the-future strategies for implementing and benefiting from system-integration-based analytics.

The building technologies required to meet the unique goals of the project were necessarily advanced and often inherently complex, compared to most commercial building systems. The multifaceted nature of the architectural spaces required tailored solutions for systems, such as HVAC, lighting, life safety, access control, and scientific processes. This high degree to which systems were customized to various spaces created a demand for specific control and automation technologies. This took the form of an intelligent building architecture.

Interfaces throughout the open ground floor of the WID building draw from the systems integration architecture to document building performance and resource use, providing informational content to the general public and impacting the behavior of building occupants.

Q: How has the relationship between utilities, the Smart Grid, and commercial buildings changed in recent years, and what should engineers expect to see in the near future?

Steven Collier: Most buildings have traditionally been passive consumers of electric power and energy generated by some 7,000 utility-owned power plants, and delivered to them through high-voltage transmission lines and local distribution systems. Now, however, buildings are becoming an important component of the grid itself as they increasingly deploy their own generation, storage, and energy management systems. They are doing this for a variety of reasons including economy, reliability, security, sustainability, and independence. And, perhaps most importantly, they do it to maximize the benefits for themselves, not to help their utility solve its problems. This trend will not only continue but it will accelerate. Smart buildings will not just be served by the Smart Grid, they will become an integral part of it.

John Cooper: Traditionally, commercial buildings managed their energy largely independently of their electric utility grid, focused primarily on minimizing their electricity bill via conservation, energy efficiency, and minimizing usage during high-cost periods. Starting in the 1980s, electric utilities began to offer financial incentives to customers who would allow them to control some portion of their load to maximize operating economy and defer the need to build expensive new generators. Over the past decade, utilities more aggressively sought to engage customers in demand response programs wherein customers would change when they used electricity to mitigate utilities’ growing problems with grid economy, reliability, and sustainability. Commercial building owner/operators are becoming increasingly less satisfied with the economy, reliability, security, service quality, and sustainability of the legacy grid. As a result, as Steve observed, they are putting in their own energy production, storage, and management systems.

Edward: We’re approaching the point where commercial buildings are starting to have a need to communicate directly with the utility grid. Utility companies have been using Smart Grid technologies to modernize their systems and provide greater reliability, often with the use of grants or agreements with their local regulators. We are still moving toward a system of dynamic or real-time pricing where utilities and independent system operators will see the benefit of charging consumers based on the actual cost of generation throughout the day. When commercial buildings start seeing a high cost of energy at peak usage times, there will be an incentive for two-way communication with Smart Grids to avoid high costs, and the relationship with the utility will change. The trend toward this type of relationship has started in some parts of the country and will likely expand as energy codes and state regulators adopt related requirements.

Krause: The two primary drivers for all concerned parties to embrace with respect to Smart Grid implementation relate directly to improved distribution system reliability and enhanced power delivery efficiency. The improved electrical reliability is derived from the significantly improved communication directly from consumer meters that can alert utilities of outages, low voltage, and poor power quality on an individual consumer basis. Such system anomalies can readily be identified and isolated via utility supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, thus limiting the overall outage exposure to the rest of the distribution system. As the digital metering equipment continues to evolve along with the communication systems, overall improved system stability and reliability will result.

The system efficiency essentially is related to demand-side controls implemented within the consumer’s own facilities. Smart Grids allow consumers to monitor their own demand levels and establish internal controls to diminish their own demand and energy consumption. Whether it is time-of-day automated controls or the education of employees regarding manual switching of electrical loads, the consumer has the impetus to institute these policies and obtain the subsequent economic benefit. The utilities realize improved load factors, which allow existing distribution systems to operate more efficiently and preclude the need to increase capital expenditures by not requiring more power generation or more transmission lines and their associated substations.

These two elements are key to the success of the Smart Grid concept and can be realized almost immediately with the benefits being shared by the consumer and the utility alike.

Q: How are BAS being impacted by the Smart Grid developments?

Collier: Perhaps the better question is how are BAS impacting Smart Grid developments? I think that in many ways, the entire Smart Grid discussion has the cart before the horse, so to speak. The electric utility industry in general thinks of Smart Grid measures primarily as a way of preserving and prolonging the legacy grid. They think of customer engagement as being important primarily so that customers will reduce their demands on an increasingly frail legacy grid. Meanwhile, technology (energy, electronics, telecommunications, and information) is making it possible for customers and an ever-growing industry of nonutility providers (dis-intermediaries) to simply leap-frog the legacy grid to an entirely new model.

Customers will always act in their own best interests. They are not going to be interested in developing expertise, exerting effort, or incurring expense for the benefit of their electric utility.

Cooper: Commercial buildings enjoy steadily expanding options not available historically, well beyond what traditional building management systems—even emerging BAS—typically provide. These include on-site power production and storage, selling power back to the grid, multiple-site resource dispatch optimization, and sophisticated energy management systems. In fact, as technologies continue to improve and emerge, and these trends progress over the next few years, commercial buildings will have the potential to use BAS integrated with distributed energy resources (DER), such as on-site generators, fuel cells, or solar/photovoltaic, to become “prosumers,” producing as well as consuming energy, not to mention their ability to store either thermal energy, or electricity in batteries.

With this newfound capacity, we can begin to speak of buildings, like the grid, as evolving to become smart buildings, with a wide range of power options, from net zero (operating independently of the grid, as a building microgrid or a nanogrid) to power positive (acting as distributed power plants or storage units with excess production capacity) to grid integrated (coordinating energy consumption, storage, and production with grid operations). Engineers can expect microgrid control technologies to find their way into this smaller realm of integrated, independent, commercial building nanogrids. What remains to be seen is the emerging business relationship between commercial building owners and the utilities that serve them.

Q: Describe the various Smart Grid-ready solutions you’ve integrated into BAS of buildings and facilities and their challenges and opportunities.

Collier: Our software solutions are for electric utility engineering and operations, and so our customers have historically been electric utilities and their professional service providers, not retail consumers. It is interesting, however, that in recent years, as more commercial and industrial sites (and their nonutility providers) have begun to own and operate their own independent distribution systems or microgrid or nanogrid, they are beginning to purchase and use similar software.

Cooper: My company offers a complete spectrum of products, solutions, and services for the protection, automation, planning, monitoring, and diagnosis of grid infrastructure, as well as a complete suite of building management services for the commercial and industrial sectors. Our suite of Smart Grid applications integrate with smart meter infrastructures, distributed generation, and BAS solutions, thus allowing utilities and aggregators to enable Smart Grid offerings that fully leverage distributed energy resources. Siemens Building Technologies provides energy services to the commercial sector. For example, Gamma building control provides intelligent solutions and services to maximize energy efficiency and comfort in buildings. Anticipating ever-greater grid integration with commercial buildings, Siemens has developed integrated load management (ILM) technology that merges distributed energy management systems with demand response management systems to provide grid operators and building owners with visibility and dispatch capability of a wide variety of edge resources—from edge power to edge storage devices to curtailable loads.

Siemens has three companies in particular actively engaging in BAS and Smart Grid integration. PTI offers business transformation and solution engineering services based on Compass methodology, which integrates business processes, business capabilities, and aspirations with innovative technologies to guide utilities and businesses into a new, more holistic and integrated energy business model. Pace Global offers a custom portfolio of strategic and tactical services for utilities, commercial, and industrial customers, including integrated resource planning, risk-based capital allocation strategy, energy data management services, energy efficiency assessments, and strategic sourcing programs, with a growing focus on DER and microgrids. The eMeter’s EnergyIP solution is a flexible, scalable meter data management (MDM) platform that has the most large-scale, mass-market deployments in the utility industry, and has become the standard MDM solution. Also, eMeter recently released Energy Engage Mobile, its first mobile-web application that brings energy consumption information directly to the consumer’s fingertips, helping utilities connect with their customers.

Figure 2: NREL technicians work in the Energy Systems Integration Lab within ESIF. The research conducted there addresses technical readiness, performance characterization, and testing of hydrogen-based and other energy storage systems for optimal production and efficient use. Courtesy: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Edward: Current BAS have the programming flexibility to bring in Smart Grid technologies if needed. This is a platform that will be able to expand to accommodate additional control functions to react and respond to data provided by the Smart Grid when that option becomes more widely available. A building can be set up to provide warning or automation to reduce total load as part of a demand response program or a dynamic pricing event.

Krause: An era of transformation is upon us, as nonrenewable fuels are joined by an array of newly viable energy sources including photovoltaics, geosourcing, wind power, biofuels, and hydrogen. AEI’s history of engineering efficiency into energy-intensive facilities focuses us on smarter energy use and smart buildings. Advanced integration and communication of systems via more complex and developed BAS calls for a high level of technical dexterity to wade through assessment of hard data and growing technologies of Smart Grid, energy sources, sustainability, and communication protocols.

One of AEI’s recently completed projects is the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo. NREL is the nation’s primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy-efficient research, demonstration, and deployment of systems such as Smart Grids (see Figure 2). Electrical delivery infrastructures and their subsequent communications are focuses of the ESIF.

AEI planned, designed, and engineered two key parts of the ESIF to allow this development to commence: the research electrical distribution bus (REDB) and the facility SCADA system. The renewable energy sources discussed above variously produce incongruent ac and dc power. The REDB functions as the ultimate power integration circuit to support further industry development of uniform conversion, metering, safeties, and system communications.

This is where BAS and SCADA systems play a vital role. New technologies demand robust safety systems. The ESIF SCADA system does just that and more. The system marshals safety PLCs, and central electric, water, and HVAC utilities, to name a few. AEI’s unique safety- and data-integrity-driven SCADA solution deploys hardware-independent software governing the array of function-specific control systems that comprise a smart building/Smart Grid.

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