October 2006

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Control Solutions, Inc. - Minnesota

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The HVAC Industry CAN Reinvent Itself!

  Thomas Hartman

  Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

Contributing Editor

There is a growing understanding that there will come a point in human history at which society has to learn to continue its progress while it reduces its consumption of resources. That time may be very near.

In August I wrote an essay about the need for ASHRAE to reinvent itself if it is to succeed in its recently announced objective of becoming the leader in advancing sustainable building practices. I received many comments from the ASHRAE community and other industry organizations. Most agreed that substantial changes in ASHRAE are required. But when I asked those who commented how such change should proceed, nearly all the answers started with a long pause and that pause is the answer. To change ASHRAE is a big job. It will take time, continuity of commitment by the ASHRAE leadership for years, and a lot of work just to get started.  Certainly all ASHRAE members need to contribute in this effort, but it’s becoming clear that ASHRAE is unlikely to be able to command the situation in the short term.

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That’s unfortunate because the short term is an extremely critical period. Right now, electricity short utilities are reaching out in an unprecedented effort to find ways of serving their customers with their constrained electric power and/or distribution resources. Electric use reduction incentives are commonplace and utilities are increasingly opening new doors to “meter crossing” control and operations strategies called demand response. At the same time some utilities are also showing genuine interest in connecting directly with customers’ networks to better manage and meet their customers’ needs with improved overall “source to end use” efficiency. This is a powerfully positive development, but it could end very soon.

Motivated by record electric demand, utilities are hard at work planning a new round of power plant construction. Looking at electric load growth trends, these are arguably prudent moves. But if these plants are constructed the economic reality will dictate that all this new power capacity must be sold to pay for the plants. “Throughput,” the utility jargon for its longstanding focus on producing and selling as much of its electric capacity as possible will trump their new load management activities. Especially if our industry is at all successful in stemming the growth of demand by improving building energy efficiency over the next few years, the overcapacity created by new plants will severely undercut these meter crossing initiatives and they will vanish.

However, if we move quickly to demonstrate that meter bridging networks coupled with more advanced building comfort system control technologies can perform in wide scale networks as they have shown in demonstration projects, our industry has the capacity to help develop network based meter crossing electric management networks that can single-handedly delay or eliminate the need to develop new power generation and/or distribution facilities for decades to come.

This means our industry has a very limited window of opportunity to show what we can do to fundamentally change the economic model by which electric utilities see the need for new power plants. It’s not clear that upper level electric utility executives or regulators have bought into the idea that improving the overall efficiency of the larger distribution network that runs across the meters is practical or makes good business sense. But the numbers now show that this approach is a genuine option to meet rapidly growing electric demand. Furthermore, many utilities find themselves between a rock and a hard spot trying to follow the old paradigm. The immediate problem has no short term solution, and the long term economics of building new power plants is by no means attractive. For the first time ever, our industry has the opportunity to engage the electric utility industry in a new vision for generating, distributing and converting electric power to serve their customers (and ours) with a focus on network based resource management and energy efficiency. In so doing, we can demonstrate a paradigm shift toward a profitable but more sustainable utility future. But if we are to make the case, we have precious little time to do it. We must encourage substantial investment in the necessary communications and control infrastructure before funds are fully committed to new power generation and distribution infrastructure.

But if ASHRAE is out of the short term picture, how do we do it? Well, while ASHRAE needs to get its house in order before it can really lead technically, it has already developed some of the tools we need, and it can continue to be a cheerleader for sustainability while it makes the necessary changes.  The fact is, technologies are already available to get a big jump start! Last month I was talking to a colleague who works for an energy conservation organization. He told me his agency’s plain vanilla office space was doing 50% better than the ASHRAE 90.1 Standard on lighting. Since lighting contributes greatly to cooling loads,  “Why,’ he asked “is it so difficult to design and deliver new buildings that can do 50% better on HVAC and lighting together?”

The truth is 50% better than 90.1 is a perfectly reasonable and achievable goal for all new buildings today and a reasonable retrofit objective for most existing buildings as well - except for two hurdles. First, we must adopt more modern network based control technologies to do so. Second, and even more important, we must update the process for designing, procuring, constructing and turning over building comfort systems. In fact it certainly seems to me that the current fragmented design and construction process is largely responsible for our industry’s inability to modernize the technologies we apply. Over time ASHRAE can help us in supporting new more energy efficient technologies. But we already have new ultra-efficient network control technologies. So our industry really has all we need to make a huge short term impact – eliminating the need for this round of electric power plant construction. But changing this industry and the utility industry to do it will not be easy. If we are to succeed, here’s an outline of what such a path to that success might look like.

Reliable Controls Step 1: Reorganize the building design and construction process: As of today, from start to years beyond completion, the focus for every building project must be on Performance. Performance in this context means the systems we implement from now on must be designed and constructed efficiently, they must deliver a high level of comfort, and most important of all, they must operate efficiently when they are turned over AND for the long term thereafter. To ensure these results are achieved, each project must have “designed-in” measurement and verification, complete with database to easily and simply tabulate and report the actual system performance to operators and management. The building networks and databases must be extensible, that is, have the ability to be easily connected into much larger networks.

Step 2: Incorporate a clear responsibility and authority path in every project: Some entity in every project must take responsibility for achieving an efficient level of projected system performance and ensure that it is maintained over time. The goal for every building project as of today should be at least 50% better than 90.1. And whoever is responsible for performance must also have the oversight and authority to ensure from the early design stages to startup, turnover and operation that all decisions regarding equipment, configuration, controls, operations, and maintenance are compatible with the performance goals of the project.

When we think about it, these are straightforward and almost intuitive steps. And in our relational control demonstration projects we have shown these first two steps are doable. But like all things new, the devil is in the details when it comes to scaling up and actually developing widely employed processes that embrace these features. Furthermore, these are only the first steps. The next steps are much more difficult because we need to engage electric utilities in a positive and cooperative climate for success with revolutionary change.

Step 3: Induce electric utilities and/or their regulating entities to adopt a new business model for electric services: Electric utilities must be induced to adopt business models that will satisfy their investment base by spreading their available electric resources more efficiently through network based resource management techniques rather than building new plants and selling more to meet the growing demand. The upper level of electric utility/regulator decision makers generally has a bias against this kind of thinking – and not without some good reasons! The good news is that only a few “leader” utilities or regulators need be convinced to develop and apply such a business model. If they demonstrate success, the rest of the industry will be motivated to follow due to the previously noted risks associated with other alternatives.

Step 4: Create a new industry to sell efficiency: A whole new industry must be created that is ready to aggregate and sell guaranteed electric load reduction in a process that is similar to how power generation plants are now developed and power allocated among the participating utilities. These will be big firms that have the financial power to guarantee the delivery of demand and energy reduction, the mirror of firms that develop and guarantee the delivery of new power plant capacity and operating efficiency. This industry needs to grow quite literally overnight. The good news here is that our industry already has the tools, experience and expertise needed to support the rapid growth of this new industry.

Can all of these steps be completed in the short window of time open to beat the coming round of power plant construction. If I were a betting man I would not bet on it. But I wouldn’t bet against it either. Resource and environmental concerns are rapidly growing among the regulators and regulated alike. There is a growing understanding that there will come a point in human history at which society has to learn to continue its progress while it reduces its consumption of resources. That time may be very near.

If we as a society do agree that this historical point is coming upon us, our industry has a golden opportunity to lead in showing how true progressive conservation can be accomplished in the electric power arena.  It will take a concerted effort by the utility industry, building owners, architects, engineers, and the others of these industries who understand the need to make these steps happen. Can we do it? Yes! Will we do it? Let’s stay tuned!


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