The hybrid vs. the Hummer

Photo by Flickr use jurvetson

While we wait for our jetpacks, rejoice in the amazing efficiency opportunities offered by older buildings.

Buildings accounts for about 40% of our energy footprint, so it’s no surprise that the built environment is now a font of clean-tech innovation. Technologists paint a vision of future buildings bristling with smart gear: batteries in the basement linked to solar panels on the roof; windows that adjust their opacity to carefully balance daylight and heat gain; sensors that detect occupancy and hundreds of other conditions to constantly finetune and adjust; all tied together by an automated brain that can read realtime electricity price signals from a self-managing grid.

It’s a lovely vision, and one that will undoubtedly come to pass in some form or another. But building stock turns over very slowly, so before we get too carried away with our Jetsons-like future, it’s worth understanding where we are now and how we should focus our efforts in the timeframe that matters to most facility engineers and property managers.

Consider an analogy from the automotive world. A late-model Ford Explorer, one of the more popular cars in the U.S., gets about 17 miles to the gallon. Not very impressive, although not the worst car on the road. A shiny new Prius, on the other hand, gets 50 miles to the gallon. If the goal is to conserve fuel, clearly we need to get more hybrids on the road, right?

Well…maybe. The problem is that the market for hybrids is much smaller than the market for SUVs, and it’s the SUV market at the moment that represents the really juicy efficiency gains. Improving the mileage of that Explorer from 17 to 20 MPG would save about 110 gallons of gas per year. To get the same amount of savings from a Prius, you have to increase the efficiency from 50 to 90 MPG. That’s the paradox of energy efficiency — once you’ve done the easy stuff, further gains become that much harder.

And the Prius isn’t even the cutting edge anymore. You can go out today and buy an all-electric Nissan Leaf, which the EPA rates as getting the equivalent of 99 miles to the “gallon.” Of course, there are no gallons going into a Nissan Leaf, but nevertheless, this figure gives a rough sense of operating costs. To achieve comparable savings in a Leaf, automotive engineers will have to figure out a way to bump performance up from 99 to 800 miles per virtual gallon.

Another way to think of this is from the perspective of conservation. Rather than trading in your Explorer, you could opt to drive it less. (To continue the building analogy, operational and behavioral changes often offer much quicker and lower-cost savings than capital upgrades.) So you resolve to drive 1,000 fewer miles per year, which takes a bit of planning, but is no great sacrifice. The Prius owner has to drop 3,000 miles per year to achieve comparable savings. The Leaf owner has to find a way to cut 6,000 miles from his annual commute.

Most buildings today are like that Ford Explorer. They use pneumatic controls. They lack a BAS. But one piece of advanced technology that most building already have or soon will have is a smart meter, provided by free by your local utility. Tons of great data is available, which, when combined with great analytics, can point the way to big savings today. And if you save enough now, you may have enough money later for that jetpack.

About Adam Stein

Adam runs the product team at Gridium. Formerly he co-founded TerraPass, and before that worked at Tellme and Trilogy. He has an MBA from Wharton and a BS from Stanford, neither of which impress his young daughter.

One reply on “The hybrid vs. the Hummer”

  1. Paul Bostwick says:

    I like the analogy. A lot.

    Efficiency schemes are tough on small scale solar (one side of things I research) as they can potentially slip you beneath the lowest grid price tiers and then the solar energy overpriced against the grid (at the lowest tier.)

    But back to your analogy. The slow turnover of the building stock is an important issue and “driving” that building fleet in a smarter way should wring out a bunch of value/waste.

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