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Building for better

Energy efficient buildings can have a massive impact on the global battle to mitigate climate change. Giles Crosse reviews new data influencing the homes and offices of the future.

Energy efficient office building

Perhaps logically, many countries see burgeoning new renewable technologies, such as recent Norwegian developments in fresh/saltwater osmosis, as the best ways to solve our dependency on fossil fuels.

But anyone familiar with city centre office blocks might tell a different story. The truth is, few buildings in advanced Western cities have widely embedded the right efficiency technologies. Indeed, many workers tell tales of central heating systems that can’t be deactivated, situated underneath open windows in the middle of summer.

Alternatively, it’s often impossible to open windows at all in high-rise offices, where the costs, both environmental and financial, of air-conditioning systems are reaching for the skies. Surely there must be a more sensible, long-term solution to how we deliver tomorrow’s buildings?

Strangely, despite rising energy costs and looming carbon regulations, cutting-edge heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) technologies seemingly face an uphill battle for adoption by a conservative building industry.

In its report, titled, “Uncovering Attractive Innovations in HVAC Amidst Evolutionary Growth,” Lux Research has surveyed the field of incumbent and emerging HVAC technologies. The Boston, US-based research company has been investigating the geographical, regulatory, and economic factors influencing adoption as well as assessing which systems and components are best positioned for future growth.

Some of the statistics are telling. Lux estimates that Building HVAC systems consume 13% of all primary energy generated around the globe, crying out for new, more energy efficient alternatives, including advanced heat pumps, absorption chillers, evaporative chillers and condensing boilers.

It appears there is also demand for component technologies that improve the operational cost or performance of existing HVAC equipment, including variable speed compressors, electronic expansion valves, advanced humidity removal, heat recycling, variable frequency drives, and thermal energy storage.

Future trends in global HVAC

• Advanced HVAC systems are seeing incremental adoption.

Yesterday’s steam-heated boilers and standard furnaces are slowly giving way to more efficient gas-fired furnaces and condensing boilers, as well as new technologies like radiant heating and advanced heat pumps. Heat pumps show particular potential when coupled with water heaters, as this approach – from companies like Cool Sound Industries, WhisperGen, and Disenco – combines the efficiency of electrically driven pumps with advanced absorption cycles.

• Opportunities abound for advanced HVAC components to show their value.

Simplicity can shorten the path to adoption, as illustrated by component-level solutions such as variable frequency drives (VFDs) and expansion valves. Low-cost VFDs enable compressors to pump only what is needed for specific applications, significantly improving the efficiency of chillers – most see payback periods of 2.5 years or less. Expansion valves, meanwhile, have the ability to reduce energy consumption of air-conditioning systems and boilers and very attractive payback periods.

• The value of integrated HVAC technologies can exceed the sum of their parts.

Many of the report’s highest-ranked HVAC technologies can deliver even better returns when combined. Using expansion valves with membrane-based air-quality and humidity-control technologies, for example, can reduce HVAC energy consumption by 40% without a significant capital cost. Developers that can pool the value of their HVAC technologies through integration will also see their commercial opportunities multiply.

Jaideep Raje is senior analyst, Green Buildings Team Leader at Lux Research. He described what might be needed to speed uptake of more energy efficient HVAC technology.

“The adoption challenge for most innovative HVAC technologies is cost or conservatism. On the cost side, we can spur the adoption of technically sound yet underpenetrated technologies through incentives, subsidies, tax credits and the like.

“The way around the conservatism of the building industry is for governments or forward-thinking corporations to act as living laboratories, adopting more energy-efficient technologies at their flagship facilities, and allowing the technologies to get some real world data and credibility, in places like the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California.”

In spite of the need for visible evidence of advantages, however, the top new technologies should perhaps still be able to make capital given today’s fast growing eco marketplace? “Variable frequency drives (VFDs) are clearly current winners and are becoming more and more commonplace in commercial buildings offering variable control of HVAC. VFDs offer one of the quickest ROIs in the HVAC space,” says Raje.

“Additionally, the future is bright for VFDs, with the increased implementation of smarter building management systems. Broadly, there is a lot of interest around controls and IT solutions. Deeper integration with power electronics means steady improvements.

“Variable frequency drives and variable speed compressors are commonplace in new construction and retrofit sales continue to grow highlighting their value in reducing energy costs associated with HVAC. While presently their value is clear, this wasn’t the case a decade ago.

“This suggests that continued improvements in the scale and efficiency of power electronics could lead to further improvements in the operation of components in the HVAC matrix. The continued success of electronic valves is an early example of the potential of power electronics in improving HVAC.”

One might suspect that for the vast majority of businesses, energy efficiency would act as a win-win , given global drivers including Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), and cutting costs through lower power usage. Indeed the global waste market has already proven how recycling became more appealing as prices for disposal made landfill a less attractive option fiscally, driving the greener alternative.

Raje agrees that the drivers do represent a win-win, but argues many technologies are still quite “unproven”, at least as far as real-world, 20-years-in-the-field experience goes. Also, owners are reluctant to adopt technologies that come with a high, upfront sticker price if the benefits will only accrue to the user or the tenant by way of operational cost savings. With this in mind, what changes can we expect to see in how tomorrow’s buildings are delivered with energy efficiency in mind?

“In the years to come, we expect to see fundamental changes in new construction, with energy efficiency becoming a primary design consideration,” says Raje. “Newer, more efficient equipment will certainly play a prominent role, but the change will run a little deeper. Architects and engineers are on a constant lookout for creative and innovative ways to reduce the heating and cooling needs of buildings.

“This goal will drive them to design buildings with HVAC efficiency in mind since the initial design of a building will limit the theoretical efficiency for a building’s lifetime. They will thus go beyond the innovations of today, looking at a building’s position and design, modern insulation and windows, and smart ventilation.”

Glancing towards the future, it is perhaps a safe bet that new regulations will affect tomorrow’s industrial buildings or housing stock. These tools might even lead to far more holistic concepts surrounding how we live and how we consume power, perhaps affecting our lifestyles in unexpected and challenging ways.

“There are two strong secular trends at work in the buildings world, net zero energy and intelligence,” suggests Raje. “Instinctively, they appear to be philosophically at odds with each other. While a net zero energy building can operate independently of the grid, the ‘distributed generation’ paradigm, the intelligent building is often one that is intimately in sync with others around it and with the grid on the whole.

“However, in both cases, energy efficiency and an enhanced user experience are the central drivers. The net zero energy building will require its owners, designers and users to embrace renewable energy, sustainable practices, resource efficiency and waste minimisation.

“Enabling an intelligent building will require behavioural modification, creation and adoption of suitable platforms and applications that run on those platforms and strong win-win business cases for all market participants. We see regulations increasingly moving to enable these two trends, and that is where the buildings of tomorrow appear to be headed as well: towards becoming self-sufficient, active, and responsible members of the urban ecosystem.”

This sounds like an exciting change, and plainly there is likely to be a massive place for renewables within such a brave new world. But just how important will renewable energy be in all of this? How might solar panels or heat pumps grow to gradually become more normal a part of building globally?

“Renewable energy will play a critical role in the net zero energy building of tomorrow, the latter will be impossible without the former,” responds Raje. “You increasingly see the adoption of such technologies in buildings globally, but the rate is stunted by high costs, poor performance, and inadequate performance history.

“We expect things like solar panels and heat pumps to grow but sluggishly for the near future, until economies of scale or regulatory incentives make the payback period as well as the LCOE attractive, at which point we expect a strong uptick in demand and adoption. This phenomenon can be seen in action, for example, with SOFCs in the UK or BIPV in France.”

Of course, microgeneration is likely to grow too, as incentivisation for homeowners encourages a more distributed means of how power is generated, alongside a widely predicted return to localism within the wider spectrum of future living. How soon will on roof wind turbines and solar water heating compliment passive air conditioning in tomorrow’s homes?

“They might, as will other approaches,” concludes Raje. “Ultimately it will be a suite of solutions that are combined together depending on the specific case of the home, its location, the design objectives, the budget and more.

“There is no one magic technology, or combination of technologies, and there is no one size that will fit all. So, in certain geographies, passive air conditioning, coupled with roof-mounted wind and solar water heating will suffice, but others might require active HVAC coupled with dynamic windows and cool roofs.”

What is perhaps certain is that the shift in where we live and how we work has begun, and it is unlikely to do anything but gain momentum. There is a lot of money to be made from this, alongside global eco returns, but uptake of the right technologies will be crucial if climate emissions and global temperature rises are to be controlled to meaningful levels.

As ever, the right research, funding and incentivisation are the tools governments can be deploy to help make this happen. And institutions like the EU, with ability to initiate directives affecting broad swathes of global states, are perhaps even better suited to blazing the right path.

Lux Research is an independent research and advisory firm providing strategic and ongoing intelligence on emerging technologies. Founded in 2004 as a spin-off of venture capital firm Lux Capital, serves clients across the world from offices in Boston, New York, Amsterdam and Singapore.

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