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Saving energy when it counts: Pilot uses smart controls to save costs, carbon

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Fleet Services building

Completed in December, Madison's $33 million Fleet Services headquarters on Nakoosa Trail is one of the buildings being considered for a pilot program to test "smart" technology like thermostats and lighting controls.

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a Madison company more than $5 million to equip 15 local buildings with “smart” technology that could both save energy and help smooth the transition to a cleaner electric grid.

Slipstream Group, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating climate solutions through technology, hopes the project can establish a scalable business model for reducing the impact of buildings on the climate crisis.

“The goal is ultimately reducing energy consumption in commercial buildings which, to the building owner or tenant, is good from a cost-savings perspective,” said Scott Schuetter, principal engineer with Slipstream’s research group. “To the larger society, it’s good from a carbon emissions reduction perspective.”

But unlike traditional energy efficiency programs, which reduce overall energy use, the $61 million Connected Communities grant program aims to change when it’s used, turning buildings into resources that can maximize the use of clean energy.

A kilowatt-hour of electricity saved is valuable. But in a system that is increasingly reliant on intermittent sources like wind and solar, that energy is worth a lot more at certain times of the day.

Illustration: What is a grid-interactive efficient building?

So-called “grid-interactive efficient buildings” use automated controls, sensors, and analytics to communicate with the electrical grid and reduce energy use when systemwide demand is highest, or shift use to take advantage of cheaper, cleaner electricity when it’s abundant.

That could mean dimming lights by 10% or turning up the thermostat a few degrees during the summer or pre-cooling spaces or pre-heating water.

“The building can respond,” said Dale Hoffmeyer, technology manager in the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

These automated buildings can then be paired with solar panels, batteries, generators run on waste heat and other small-scale power sources. Strung together, smart buildings with different use patterns could be programmed to share resources.

Graphic: how grid-interactive buildings can save energy

The Madison project will include lighting, heating and cooling systems as well as electric vehicle charging stations — “anything that uses energy,” Schuetter said.

Schuetter said the first phase will focus on about half a dozen municipal buildings, though the goal is to eventually expand to public and private-sector buildings within Madison Gas and Electric’s territory.

“We want to use the city as a test bed and then build an MGE pilot in the broader community,” Schuetter said.

Stacie Reece, the city’s sustainability coordinator, said the award is “great news” that will help the city move toward its goals of increasing sustainability and reducing carbon emissions.

The five-year project, set to kick off in early 2022, will also help researchers learn how far they can go with minor adjustments without affecting comfort.

“That’s the boundary,” Schuetter said. “You can’t ask people to stop what they’re doing or be uncomfortable.”

The Department of Energy estimates by the end of this decade such smart buildings could save up to $18 billion a year in system costs and eliminate more greenhouse gas emissions than closing 18 coal-fired power plants.

The potential carbon reductions would be highest in the Upper Midwest, which is still heavily dependent on fossil fuel generation.

While the digital technology enabling grid-interactive buildings is new, the idea is fairly simple: Electricity supply and demand are balanced on a second-by-second basis to keep the system from crashing.

As people turn on lights and appliances, grid operators can call on power plants to increase output. Demand response just focuses on the other end of the seesaw: Instead of adding generation to meet demand, operators can cut load somewhere else.

“We want to see not only buildings that are energy efficient but also have that grid-interactive capability,” Hoffmeyer said. “We think they’re both necessary. They go hand in hand.”


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