Lack of integration is the enemy of energy efficiency

Published:  01 November, 2013

Mike Malina, integration
The lack of integration is the enemy of sustainability and energy efficiency — Mike Malina

Mike Malina believes there is much confusion and many distractions to the need to improve the energy efficiency of buildings — and that the reality of mainstream energy is much simpler.

What is systems integration? Talk to different people and you will get many different answers.

A building-controls engineer would define it as various building-control systems working together and being inter-operable.

An air-conditioning specialist would say it would be better to have a shared, common system than individual split air-con units.

For me, systems integration is a lot more than the technology. It is about ensuring that all systems and practices are truly integrated to create the best opportunity to deliver smart, energy-efficient and as sustainable a building as is feasibly possible.

So what do we mean by systems integration for energy efficient and sustainable buildings?

In my book ‘Delivering sustainable buildings’, I try to address this issue by highlighting the role of the contractor and the integration of commissioning, continuous commissioning and planned-preventative maintenance. This needs to go hand in hand with all of the normal stages of the traditional building cycle, as the project progresses from its inception to hand over and way beyond. Key to this for the future will be upgradeability and adaptability. Much of this can be achieved with all of these systems being integrated and highlighting the importance of good building energy management, controls and monitoring.

Methodologies and schemes such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) and the BSRIA Soft Landings process would also feature as part of this process which does not have to be overly complex. The KISS principle (Keep It Simple and Sustainable) should be kept in mind at all stages. Otherwise, we can say that the ‘lack of integration is the enemy of sustainability and energy efficiency’.

In the course of my 30 years of experience, I have seen the damage caused by the sometimes scattergun approach in adopting technologies and systems with a combination of short termism and the consequent lack of joined-up thinking. This seems to come in waves and reflects the impacts of the cycle in the economy and the changes in technology.

Fig. 1: The energy hierarchy — what is needed to deliver a low-carbon energy-efficient building.

An example has been the distraction from what I call ‘mainstream energy efficiency’. This has sometimes been overtaken by the bright shiny new innovations of renewable technologies, underpinned by financial incentives, which has often caused people, including facilities managers and certain contractors and consultants, to forget the most important issue — using less energy in the first place. I have always supported renewable and low-carbon technology innovations, but not when the market is distorted by inappropriate subsidies, often at the expense of the prime need for energy efficiency first and foremost.

Much of the attention of the media and fashion has been on photo-voltaics, because they are in vogue and attract the Feed in Tariff (FIT) as a significant financial subsidy. People tend to like new technologies and want to be part of their development in society. Nevertheless, this can distract our attention from the fact that the cheapest kilowatt of power is not solar — it’s the kilowatt we never use in the first place.

I would maintain that the key is still to focus on the energy hierarchy, (Fig. 1) since the financial and environmental impact is far better served by reducing the energy in the first place. Perhaps another way of looking at this is to combine the energy hierarchy with the true cost of finance and payback.

A classic example was the ‘gold rush’ for the photo-voltaic FIT. Not only did this distract from energy-efficiency priorities, but also led to inappropriate specifications of a number of low-carbon and renewable technologies, which were often not integrated with each other nor with the existing systems in the buildings. Now that the dust has settled with the reduction in the FIT, we can see this as being part of what is called the technology hype curve (Fig. 2), which shows my adaptation of the hype cycle originally devised by the Gartner Group.

This is where I believe many of the renewable technologies are at this present time.

If we relate this development profile versus the technological development over time, we see that because of artificial incentives from governments such as the FIT or the renewable heat incentive (RHI), the hype trend is confirmed. Especially regarding what happened historically with the FIT, we reach a rapid higher visibility and profile for solar photovoltaic (PV). I believe we have gone past the peak for inflated expectations and we are now entering the phase known as the ‘trough of disillusionment’. This will then be followed by what is known as a ‘period of realisation’ as it dawns on people that all the hype has clearly raised awareness of a very interesting technology, but it cannot possibly deliver on a large scale in relation to stages 1 and 2 of the energy hierarchy (Fig. 1). If we look on the technology hype curve (Fig. 2), it is interesting to plot my interpretation for energy efficiency, commissioning, maintenance and general systems integration as I believe it currently stands (solid green curve).

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could have the same steep rise in visibility and profile for these core activities that we are all used to in the building-services industry over many years? I believe there would be no trough of disillusionment and the period of realisation shown in Fig. 2 (green-dotted line) would deliver true longevity for sustainable buildings.

Fig. 2: The technology hype curve.

In terms of the environmental benefits versus the financial payback, the much-vaunted payback given to photo-voltaics via the FIT was promised at 10 years and the return on investment was anything between 10 to 15%. Contrast this with the energy hierarchy stages 1 and 2 and you will find on a much larger scale that reducing energy requirement and use by investing, for example, in insulation, building controls, variable-speed drives, electronically commutated motors and fans and integrated building-energy management will deliver paybacks of less than five years, very often in just two to three years. This is where I believe the industry needs to wake up, resist the hype and start a rigorous campaign of educating the wider industry and the public as to where the true environmental and cost savings are made.

We need to concentrate on what we are good at and start focusing on what I call the 5 Cs for systems integration.

1.Commissioning

2.Continuous commissioning

3.Controls

4.Communication

5.Compliance

We will start to see more emphasis on saving energy and a lot more systems integration. This is a much more productive and quicker fix to achieve sustainable energy efficient and integrated systems. I am optimistic that this together with the development of BIM and Soft Landings will hopefully lead to more positive developments and make greater systems integration the norm for the building-services industry of the future.

Mike Malina is director of Energy Solutions Associates.

About Mike Malina’s book

‘Delivering sustainable buildings: an industry insider’s view’ offers peer-to-peer insights from this leading practitioner in the field. The book brings together the main issues to consider when creating energy-efficient and sustainable buildings.

This book is highly readable and a resource to dip into for practical advice. It is backed up by in-depth technical knowledge — giving the important points to note and common pitfalls to avoid.

Based on Mike Malina’s hands-on experience of dealing with the various elements of the building-services-engineering industry, the book gives an insight into the particular challenges faced by designers, project managers, contractors and installers working to deliver lower-carbon and sustainable building projects and operation.

The book speaks directly to contractors and practitioners, with practical messages dealing with real on-site challenges, offering practical advice based on experience. It will help specialist contractors and facilities managers understand sustainable buildings at the strategic level and then offer practical advice on various aspects of sustainable buildings to their clients.

Readers of MBS can get a 20% discount using code VBB09 at the link below.



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