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A view to the future

New technologies like dynamic windows are changing the business opportunities in low carbon. Giles Crosse learns more.

A mix of the right energy sourcing, the best new technology and the top energy efficiency measures should help solve the climate change dynamics facing today’s society.

To meet these challenges, businesses are continually tasked with developing top new technologies that not only use less in their production and useful life, but also offer multiple advantages from an environmental perspective.

Now, dynamic windows and high-tech insulation are poised to gain an US$829m foothold in the world construction market by 2020, says Lux Research, a US-based environmental research and advisory firm.

It is all part of a broader shift, says Lux, towards more energy-efficient construction that is driving demand for efficiency improvements in the windows, walls, roofs, and foundation that collectively comprise the so-called thermal envelope. Although incumbent solutions will continue to dominate the market, a handful of emerging technologies, including dynamic smart windows and advanced insulation, are set for major growth.

Lux’s work suggests that dynamic windows, which can switch from a clear to a darkened state to provide shading from the sun, will represent a US$418m market by 2020. Meanwhile, emerging insulation technologies like aerogels and phase change materials will find small but profitable niches in the thermal envelope, with 2020 market sizes of US$230m and US$130m, respectively.

Vacuum insulation panels will struggle with usability and high costs, and reach just US$50m in the building sector in 2020.

Lux predictions on new energy efficient window tech

• Europe outpaces the US to provide the most fertile ground

Emphasis on the thermal envelope is one part of a broader green building movement, spurred by government building construction and efficiency standards. High energy prices and strict energy-efficiency regulations continue to drive Europe as the market leader in dynamic windows, with a 57% market share.

• Growth will accelerate as dynamic windows reach scale and costs drop

Scale is critical to reduce costs, and dynamic windows are seeing particular progress in this area. Pleotint recently started commercial production in a 2Mft2a capacity plant. Both Sage and Soladigm are nearing completion of US$100m manufacturing facilities slated to come online in 2012, and Sage’s partner Saint-Gobain will drive the global reach for Sage windows. The most likely scenario will see dynamic window technologies undergo modest annual cost reductions of 5% for electrochromics and 2% for thermochromics, bringing prices down to open up new markets. If costs were to fall at twice that rate, this market would grow to more than US$1.4bn.

Murray McCutcheon is a lead analyst for Lux and authored the data. How exactly, in his mind, do aerogels and phase change materials make smarter, more dynamic green buildings possible?
“Aerogels are amongst the highest-performance insulation technologies, with a thermal resistance about 10 times that of conventional fibreglass. However, because insulation is commoditised in most building applications, the costly aerogels will only find traction in niche applications.

“An example is Cabot’s ‘daylighting’ wall panel, which incorporates granular chunks of aerogel to diffuse daylight into an interior space while having a higher insulation value than most windows. Phase-change materials add thermal mass to the building envelope. This tends to reduce the temperature swings of the building compared to the external environment, much like a stone building heats and cools more slowly than a wood structure.

“Carbon legislation would have a massive impact on energy efficiency technologies. Also, the highly litigious nature of the US makes construction companies very risk averse to deploying new technology to improve building energy efficiency,” he argues. Could self-generated power, alongside energy efficiency, become a reality for buildings of the future as solar cell efficiencies, for example, improve?

“Any building with a solar array is already generating power. I presume the question is whether buildings can generate all their own power,” McCutcheon responds.

“Many countries have goals to achieve net zero energy buildings (NZEB). For example, South Korea aims to have all buildings self-sufficient in energy by 2025, and Germany aims to have all buildings operate without fossil fuel by 2020.

“It is conceivable that some buildings in equatorial locations will achieve NZEB status in the next two decades. In fact, Singapore already has one such flagship building. However, in less sunny locales with harsher winters, these lofty goals are unrealistic.

“It is more realistic to imagine highly-efficient, low-energy buildings. The technology exists to vastly reduce heat loss in winter, solar heat-gain in summer, and seal air leaks, but building standards and design approaches need to be improved. If the modern trend continues towards highly-glazed facades , which are extremely poor from an energy standpoint, then the market opportunities for dynamic, smart windows will be very promising.”

Lux estimates it soon have data available on building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), which are highly relevant to just how self-sufficient in terms of power the building sector might become. Which companies are at the forefront of these, and other burgeoning technologies? Why?

“In terms of dynamic windows, Pleotint and Sage Electrochromics are leading players and are selling product today,” says McCutcheon. “Pleotint has a major installation in a joint Dow Chemical-Tata Consultancy building in Midland, MI, and Sage recently received an US$80m investment from global giant Saint-Gobain.

“Moreover, both Sage and Soladigm will be completing US$100+m manufacturing facilities in 2012. Pleotint, Sage, and Soladigm have all passed the NREL durability tests verifying the robustness of their technologies,” Elsewhere, what other new tech is likely to impact on the development of the green buildings sector?

“LED lighting will make major inroads by 2015, capturing about 30% of the commercial lighting market,” estimates McCutcheon. “ Intelligent building controls which optimise the lighting and heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems and can effectively integrate buildings into the grid, allowing, for example, demand-response programs to be enacted, are also a very promising emerging technology.

“Intelligent, smartphone-enabled controls of thermostats, lights and appliances will be commonplace this decade. Homes and office buildings will be tied into smart grid technologies to enable a more robust grid and provide energy savings for consumers willing to shift consumption to off-peak times,” he continues.

“Expect to see more natural daylight, more fresh-air ventilation, more water-conserving facilities, and less strictly climate-controlled buildings, which are extremely energy-intensive compared to buildings in which the temperature can vary by a few degrees.

“Companies can realise a premium in worker satisfaction, tied to productivity and reduced churn, by providing green facilities that are comfortable working environments. Moreover, rents and occupancy rates are higher for green buildings for non-owner occupied buildings. Green building is a booming sector, accounting for about one-third of new construction in North America and Europe. The combination of government policies and increased corporate awareness will continue this trend for the foreseeable future.”

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