A Building’s Path To Net Zero Is Not Straightforward, Here’s the GPS To Help Navigate It

The real estate industry has made significant strides in reducing carbon emissions. This has been done by implementing more stringent building codes and increasing the use of energy-efficient design principles, as well as renovating older buildings with more efficient mechanical systems. Technological advancements, such as smart buildings and renewable energy sources, have also played a vital role in this effort. However, decarbonization is a complex process that demands cooperation among building owners, tenants, managers, and governments, as well as a significant investment in time and resources.

Increasing energy costs are not making it easier. Energy costs have surged by 98 percent in the last year in countries like the U.K., leading to an annual inflation prompting more real estate owners to look for sustainable ways to track and reduce their energy consumption. Despite the challenges, the industry is making strides towards this goal to create a more sustainable future.

Faced with the daunting task of making a building “carbon zero,” building owners often focus on the most obvious culprit for carbon emissions first. These can make an immediate impact but they are often not the most important first step. “Software usually takes a backseat when people think about net zero, it is usually all about changing out gas furnaces and upgrading equipment,” said Raj Subramanian co-founder and Chief Product Officer at Facilio, a property operations platform. “It is a long journey to get to carbon zero and unfortunately it is not just going to happen just by switching to LEDs or heat pumps. You need to know what to prioritize first,” he continued. 

First steps

Like many large tasks the best first step is planning out the process. The best way to do this is by using the building’s data to get a sense of what changes can make the most impact. On average about 30 percent of the energy used in a building is wasted. Changing energy patterns and HVAC scheduling can often be the low hanging fruit, not capital intensive equipment upgrades. But that is not possible with antiquated digital systems. Bringing all the data into one place is the first step. The easiest way to do this is by connecting all of the building’s systems to a cloud-based operating system. 

Bringing everything into one overarching management program means not having to change each piece of equipment. Changing the setting and logic for each individual controller in a building or portfolio can be prohibitively difficult. “Occupancy based scheduling can be incredibly complex if you don’t have a cloud system,” Subramanian said.  “If you have to program, each of the systems on site often takes new licenses and usually requires hiring systems integrators.”

The way that the foundation is laid for the data infrastructure is critical to how much it will be able to help a building decarbonize. “Building data needs to be set up in a way that can be automated later,” Subramanian said. These automations will not only help a building get to carbon zero, it will also be the key to reducing labor costs and scaling these changes across an entire portfolio. Many places around the world are requiring companies to report on their carbon reduction efforts so proper data architecture and taxonomy will help with the increasingly difficult reporting process. 

Drawing the roadmap

Getting to net zero might not be a straight path, but setting frequent milestones and approaching it in a systematic manner will get you closer to the goal quickly and efficiently. Here are the three most important milestones in the journey:

Close existing gaps 

Buildings can often suffer from a Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) data lock-in problem. Real-time energy management requires access to BAS data for control-based automation. The options available to access this data come down to either a painful building-wide system integration, or stitching complex manual workflows together that end up adding to the existing silos.

Considering there are often multiple BAS vendors and contracts involved, this becomes an arduous and impractical option for scale. However, single-pane-of-glass platforms can help unlock the untapped potential of BAS systems. With a cloud supervisory platform like Facilio to augment all site-level BAS systems, you can consolidate data from across your portfolio and optimize operations in various contexts.

Grid interactivity

Renewable energy generation is growing at a rapid pace but many of these renewable sources only produce intermittently. Your buildings should be able to strategize their energy consumption to draw more power when green energy is available. The vision of a smart, two-way grid interacting with intelligent, responsive buildings can deliver new opportunities to save costs for building owners and operators.

Grid-interactive buildings have a holistically optimized blend of energy efficiency, energy storage, renewable energy, and load flexibility technologies enabled through smart controls. This results in a lower and more flexible energy load profile, which in turn delivers a more resilient and productive building, while optimizing capital investments and reducing operating costs. This is only possible with a unified software approach where every aspect of the building is fully digitized and tightly integrated.

Choose digital retrofits over capital-intensive physical ones

Adopting a cloud-based software solution will help buildings understand which equipment upgrades will make the biggest difference when it comes to carbon reduction. Certain equipment might have quite a bit of useful life left and therefore might be best replaced later on in the journey to carbon zero. 

Digital retrofits fast-track the modernization process by enhancing rather than replacing existing infrastructure. This is a viable and inexpensive alternative to physical retrofits, which are expensive and time-consuming.

Net zero’s final mile

Our buildings are on the front line of our battle against climate change. To meet our carbon reduction targets we will need to reduce our energy use, especially when energy is being generated using fossil fuels. The fight will be long and hard and if we want to have any chance to win we will need to outfit our buildings with technology that can reduce consumption, be strategic about upgrades, and interact with the grid. For property owners there is no time to waste. Regulators in places like New York City and the U.K. have put hard deadlines when it comes to carbon disclosure and reduction. Plus, investors are increasingly requiring that buildings and the companies that lease them reduce their carbon output. All of this means that adopting these technologies will be a necessity, not an option.