Professional Development: The Energy Future

By Matt Gates
From the May 2013 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

The global drive to improve energy efficiency, manage overhead costs, and reduce environmental impact has given facility managers (fms) in most organizations a seat at the table—or at least the ear of top management. Buildings are organizational assets, after all, and organizations need to achieve an acceptable return on their enormous investment in facilities.

The efficiency of commercial buildings has improved dramatically in recent decades. In fact, more energy efficient heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and the use of various energy conservation measures have reduced the energy intensity of commercial buildings by 8.5% over the last 30 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). A building’s energy intensity is measured by the amount of energy it consumes annually per square foot.

However, many fms have only begun to tap the energy reserves of underperforming buildings. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) asserts that high performance buildings use 20% to 30% less energy and cost as much as 50% less to operate than conventional buildings over their full, occupied life.

Indoor climate solutions have evolved over the last century, thanks to improvements in technology, operating methods, and service practices. These innovations make facilities better and help fms contribute to the financial and operational goals of their organizations. The century ahead will likely bring about innovations that are just as impactful as the convector radiator, turbo-vacuum compressor, unitary air conditioning system, building automation controls, intelligent services, and energy management services.

Industry leaders continue to explore concepts that apply to both new and existing facilities and promise to take energy efficiency to new heights in the next several decades. Explored here are 10 of these concepts.

1) While the efficiency of individual systems such as HVAC, mechanical, lighting, and water will continue to improve, the biggest advancement will be in enabling interoperability of all facility systems. Innovations in control technology, wireless communication, and common operating systems will make true interoperability possible. Facility teams will benefit from simpler, more intuitive, and more integrated systems.

2) Use of intelligent building systems, services, and predictive maintenance models will accelerate, with sophisticated software continuously collecting, interpreting, and acting upon data from building systems and controls to optimize performance. Organizations using intelligent services and energy management models will see energy savings, lower operating costs, and better use of their facility manpower.

3) Building automation systems—key enablers of optimal performance—automatically perform tasks that used to require human intervention with the intelligence to optimize results. Wireless technology, applied in these systems with open communications standards, is expected to be a breakthrough.

4) Advanced building modeling and analysis software will enable fms and their energy services partners to compare the impact of various choices and use net present value (NPV) based cost analysis. NPV calculations provide a more accurate view of expected return on investment (ROI) than the simple payback method that is commonly used today, because they make data supported assumptions about future energy costs and potential savings. Better modeling helps fms build a business case for energy conservation measures.

5) The new generation of building occupants has different expectations than their older colleagues. For example, they expect to interact with building systems using their smart devices, which changes the way facility teams need to think about user interface with HVAC and other systems. Many occupants want to work flexible hours, access data remotely, and work for organizations whose values (including environmental values) they share. As demographics change, organizations will need to accommodate these tech natives who were born in the information age.

6) Better communications with utilities will enable facility teams to take advantage of the best available rates and use technologies that shift energy use to off-peak hours. Thermal storage systems, which make ice at night to cool a facility during the day, are one example. Advanced control systems will share data openly between building systems and utilities to enable organizations to take advantage of utility demand response programs that provide incentives for fms who can reduce power consumption during peak demand periods.

7) Energy services companies and HVAC equipment manufacturers will find new ways to go to market. For example, they may offer to provide customers with “occupant comfort” and charge a monthly fee to supply the combination of products and services necessary to keep facility occupants comfortable.

8) The combination of automated controls, wireless communications, and more sophisticated electronic sensors will make it easier for fms to personalize comfort settings and reduce energy costs by avoiding cooling or heating vacant areas at the same level as occupied ones.

9) Water scarcity is likely to become one of the pivotal concerns over the next 100 years, and HVAC system providers will no doubt be challenged to develop alternatives to commercial systems that rely heavily on chilled water. Hybrid cooling towers, dry coolers, heat sinks, and other less water intensive technologies can replace cooling towers in some applications, especially in smaller facilities. Fms also can take steps to reduce cooling tower water loss caused by evaporation and intentional bleed off.

10) In the future, many facilities will generate some or most of the energy they use on-site. Many will use alternative generation methods such as solar, wind, or fuel cells. This model enables fms to sell any excess power generated to the public power grid—realizing the potential of a net-zero building that creates more energy than it consumes.

Fms are under continuing pressure from their organizations to do more with less—less energy, less operating budget, less environmental impact, and less staff. Fortunately, current and emerging innovations in high performance building systems, operating practices, intelligent services, and energy management services can help fms achieve these objectives.


Gates is vice president, energy management services and solutions for Trane, a provider of indoor comfort systems and services and a brand of Ingersoll Rand. He has more than 22 years of experience in the HVAC, building management, and construction industries. Founded in 1913 by James and Reuben Trane, the company is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary.