“I used to chase kilowatt hours and now I'm chasing renewable energy.”
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Episode 49 is a conversation with Rob Brimblecombe, Manager of Energy and Sustainability at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia.
We talked about the Monash University's Net Zero Initiative and how that has driven changes in the way their buildings are designed operated. And of course, how it changes the technology that runs them. This is a fun one.
Mentions and Links
- Monash University (0:36)
- MU’s Net Zero Initiative (0:43)
- Living Building Challenge (1:33)
- Biomimicry (5:40)
- Green Star (9:55)
- BACnet Standard (10:30)
- Bullitt Center (17:33)
- Kara Rosemeier (17:45)
- Rob’s Book (17:49)
- Loyd Alter: The Treehugger Blog (18:56)
- Res (20:42)
- Miro (53:53)
- ENGIE and C3 Smart Institutions (59:00)
- Arrcus (1:06:19)
- Volttron (1:06:21)
- BrainBox AI (1:10:14)
You can find Rob Brimblecombe on LinkedIn.
- How Rob spearheaded the university's 100% renewables goal (12:56)
- How Monash defines Net Zero and how they're getting off gas (19:03)
- No longer chasing kilowatt-hours (32:00)
- How South Australia Water makes money off of demand flexibility (33:57)
- Good control means good grid economics (36:34)
- H ow appliance selection is the key to Passive House design (38:52)
- Proving the value of data modeling (50:23)
- Why the smart campus system is like an octopus and why the system is named the Kraken (1:01:38)
- How building technology works with DERs to provide flexibility (1:04:46)
Note: transcript was created using an imperfect machine learning tool and lightly edited by a human (so you can get the gist). Please forgive errors!
James Dice: [00:00:06] Hello friends, welcome to the Nexus Podcast. I'm your host, James Dice. Each week I fire questions that the leaders of the smart buildings industry to try to figure out where we're headed and how we can get there faster without all the marketing fluff.
I'm pushing my learning to the limit and I'm so glad to have you here following along.
This episode is a conversation with Rob Brimblecombe, manager of energy and sustainability at Monash University, in Melbourne, Australia. We talked about the university's Net Zero Initiative and how that has driven changes in the way their buildings are designed, operated, and of course, how it changes the technology that runs them.
This is a fun one, please enjoy.
Hey, Rob, welcome to the show. Can you introduce yourself?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:00:56] Thanks for having me, James. Great to be here. Yep. Rob Brimblecomb. I head up the engineering and sustainability at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
James Dice: [00:01:03] Cool. And can you take me through your background before you got to Monesh?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:01:08] Yeah, absolutely.
And I guess the reality is that there's not much before Monash in terms of, I actually started at . Monash many, many years ago, but there was a little bit in between. So I guess professionally, I started out in a very different space, southern plant genetics, actually looking at how plants manage energy or at least that's the story I tell.
And, they are very analogous to buildings, which is, I guess why I brought it up today and you might be familiar with the Living Building Challenge. I talked about this metaphor of being rooted in place. And it's a good metaphor, but it's actually richer than, you know, most of the story goes in terms of the plants they were looking at actually studying tobacco, which sounds a bit strange, but it's a well studied plant because obviously there's a fair bit of money in tobacco, or at least there was.
But the point of the story is that, plants generate their own energy. They regulate their own energy. Obviously they're not generating overnight, just like building zone and amazingly plants talk to each other, both through their root systems and through the chemicals they release through their leaves.
And they had this incredibly complicated control system where, they're always optimizing for growth, respiration, reproduction, and for defense. So I guess the story of tobacco is that the nicotine is actually a poison to stop bugs, eating them. So they don't produce a lot of nicotine, naturally. What happens is if you chew on them as a bug, or in my case, if you cut the top of the plant off, they send these signals down to the roots and they stop producing the nicotine.
But the nicotine is incredibly energy intensive, so they don't do it lightly. So, I guess it's this really nice analogy for me around plants are generating this precious energy resource, they're trying to manage it for their own requirements. And then, when they have to they'll produce these other compounds to defend themselves.
So it's really similar to our buildings in terms of they're rooted in place. Obviously, we can power in from other areas, but communicating with other buildings. But how do you optimize your resources to get the best possible outcome, in our case for the building occupants? You know, how do you provide the fresh air, the clean water, the nutrients that our occupants need to be productive?
And how do you do it in a clean way that, it doesn't rubbish the environment that you live in? So from there, it was an obvious jump into energy management. So I did more of the traditional energy management, degree. Did the solar and wind, and then combined the two and went and did a PhD in artificial photosynthesis.
So there we're really looking at how plants capture energy and trying to replicate it. The incredible journey and incredible loud thing to research, but turns out that plants are really, really good at it. They've got, you know, 50,000 years on us. And the trick that plants do is that they have these incredible enzymes that run hard, generate energies, split water, produce effectively the protons that turn into carbohydrates.
We were trying to produce hydrogen out of it and we could do it. But what plants do is they burn hard and fast, and then they regenerate, which buildings can't do. And I think this is part of the question that you often ask is why is the technology so far behind? But the difference that plans do is that they constantly regenerate their technology.
Whereas our technology, our solar panels are controllers fixed in place for 20 years. Totally. That was successful in the research. We managed to generate hydrogen for least 90 seconds before the whole device itself collapsed. Okay. Like I said, it was a fascinating research topic, but really what it came down to was that hydrogen, as it was, then we're still 10, 20 years away.
And as we know it. Creeping closer, but it's still a bit of a pipe dream or a bit of a moon shot. And I had this pivotal moment as many of us do where I was studying at Princeton and Amory Lovins came in to give a talk and it had a dinner at one of the holes there. And I'd been a fan of him for so many years and all the concepts of tunneling through the cost barrier and that the people are the most important investment in the buildings that it was just really being there in person and hearing him talk that made me realize that, the solutions to all the challenges of climate change and better buildings, they're all out there.
It's just good science, but the trick is putting all the pieces together. And it was really that moment that I targeted finished up the PhD and then jumped into effectively, building management at Monash University in Melbourne, back to my roots where I did my undergrad. And so I've been there for the last 12 years, really working on that journey.
James Dice: [00:05:36] That, that reminded me of when I was in, basically the concept of biomimicry. Is that what they call it? Yeah the biomimicry concept reminded me of when I was in high school and college, I used to read this blog called, Tree Hugger. And I don't even know if it's still around, I haven't read it in a long time, but it was, it's one of those things that like introduced me to all these like sustainability ideas before I knew how the actual world worked and how buildings work and how economies work.
And so I just always looked back at that time, like, Oh man, I used to think things like, you know, biomimicry were just the coolest thing. And then when I got into the real world, it was like, they were, so the real world was so far from being able to make a lot of that happened. Like my first job was at a mechanical contractor, for example.
And it's like, you can't even say the word biomimicry as a mechanical contractor. So anyway, very cool. Um, and I want to give a shout out to one of your consultants at the university. Kuren, who's a student in my course that kind of gave me some background on all the cool stuff that you guys are doing that, uh, it sounds like you and Kuren have a weekly debrief after you both listened to the Nexus Podcast every week.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:06:46] Yeah, that's it that's, poor Kuren, he knows when the call comes to clear the desk because there's a window of time that he needs. So we joke that he's got an app on his, um, on his phone that he turns on when I call and it just starts billing against, you know, the next Nexus Podcast. He just puts his time sheet down is Nexus debrief .
But certainly, uh, whenever those new ideas come in and you would see the new companies and I ring them up and say, Kuren, how are we going to do this? And Kuren has been great because it's an evolving space. And, uh, you know, it's impossible for one person to know it all. But every time I throw a challenge at him, it's like, all right, let me at it. I'll come back to you and we'll see what we can do.
James Dice: [00:07:26] That doesn't surprise me at all. Very cool. Well, he told me about a lot of stuff that I want to unpack with you and I mean, you sent me some stuff too, that looks awesome. Can you just first start with an overview of the university and just sort of provide some context of what kind of buildings we're talking about, how many, you know, that kind of thing.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:07:44] Yeah, absolutely. So Monash is, uh, normally Australia's largest university. We have about 60,000 domestic students or Australian-based students. Although that's been a little bit different over the last year. We've been far more global in our nature with students starting from around the world. We also have some campuses across Asia and the small one in Italy.
So we're very large. And I guess compared to say a Princeton, which is, you know, roughly when I was there about 5,000 or so undergraduates .You know, 60,000 it's the city. So we have all types of buildings. We have the, we have high energy research buildings from biomedical to wind tunnels. We have a synchrotron sitting on the site next to us.
Uh, we've got commercial buildings. We've got office buildings, the lecture theaters, although there are sort of a bit moth-balled at the moment and your big tutorial buildings. So it's other than sort of heavy industrial, you know, it's, it's a spread of what you find in a city. And I guess the interesting bit about them is that they're often on one grid connection point.
So our main campus about 80 buildings, which is where, on a given day, you can have 40,000 students coming through all the buses and traps, but it's connected to the grid in one place. So I guess we have this little, micro-environment, our own little network that we can play in. And then I guess if you think about the scale of it across the Australian campuses, we have about 160 buildings, about 680,000 square meters or, I did a little calculation, I think it's about 7 million square feet in your terminology. So there's increased up. There's some scale there. And I guess the journey for me started with, yeah, how do you chase the low-hanging fruit? You know, as so many of us do it's you got to get your early runs on the board.
And pleasingly, for me, that was pneumatic controls in the space, I went in, rip those out, put in say, and you get that instant 20 to 30% energy savings overnight, then jump deep into the retrocommissioning again, that's really great savings to be had in a building, in an environment that's, you're running hard and fast every day.
James Dice: [00:09:53] Totally.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:09:54] And then, we did a whole bunch of Green Star, which is our late equivalent buildings to buildings, new builds. So getting it up to that sort of new standard and chase that sort of low hanging fruit as that came out of LEDs and solar. So it was this great test and learn environment for me, you know, I came from a slightly different space, so I really got my engineering degree actually practicing it.
But eventually we..
James Dice: [00:10:17] What year did that start?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:10:19] It was about 2010 when I kicked off in the actual energy management space.
James Dice: [00:10:23] Okay.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:10:24] Plenty of learning to do. And, uh, I guess back then, you know, with the pneumatic control upgrades. Yeah. I know it wasn't new, but the big thing for us was a BACnet standard. Let's get everything on BACnet, which, you know, we'll pick up again on later, but...
James Dice: [00:10:37] Yeah.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:10:37] So we rolled out a huge amount of new controlers as a whole demand BACnet, which I wouldn't say we're unwinding, but we're certainly trying to put in its place. I'm sure we'll get back into that in a bit more detail.
James Dice: [00:10:49] Where you at this point, like the term we have in the US is like Campus Energy Manager. Is that what your role was? And I guess part B of that question was, did you guys have like a, you know, we're setting a 2010 baseline and we're looking for 20% energy savings or what was it back then? Because we'll talk about what you're doing now in a minute, but what, what was the sort of impetus for this?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:11:14] Yeah, you've, uh, you've almost hit it on the nail on the head there that my title was Energy and Water Manager and we had a 20% energy savings. Uh, Florida or a student loan was the kind of goal. So recognizing that universities are heavy energy users, you know, in terms of when you run a lab building, it's never going to be Net Zero energy standalone with the solar on the roof, because they're stuck in energy for the fume hoods and they've got deep freezers and all that sort of stuff.
But yeah, the goal was to bring the energy down and, you know, make us more efficient. And it was that kind of first step. So we had a lot of luck in that and I'd like to say, hit our goals. We came pretty close, but you know, by the time, you know, we hit the target, we were sort of about 18 or 19% so well, and truly in the ballpark that enough, that people didn't question us and they let us get on with it.
James Dice: [00:12:04] Totally. Okay.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:12:05] The other advantage of working for the uni. is that we are an education organization. We've got the R and D behind us. So I had this great opportunity to teach into it as well. So know, there's this great opportunity to practice and actually, teach into the students. And also this ability to learn, which, we've talked about previously of a lot of commercial entities, don't have that opportunity to say, I'm going to try this high temperature, oil based, uh, heating system on the roof of the building.
That's got, you know, 200 valves and five pumps running through it. That's just horrendously complicated and no commercial real estate manager should ever touch, but because we're a university and we've got the mechanical engineers, you know, we gave that a go and for the record, don't do it. It's too complicated.
James Dice: [00:12:52] Yeah. Even if you have the engineers, don't do it. That's hilarious.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:12:56] So, I guess off the back of the 20% target, we again, working with the students, the advantage of students is that you can get them to do an exploration work and that, you know, they're thinking outside the square. So I set the students for my course, the assignment as their final year research project, can we get the university onto a 100% renewables? So I said, yeah. And don't just think electricity, think the whole thing, because gas is about just on the half of our energy consumption. Obviously boilers they're far more inefficient than cooling systems. So overall in our climate, which touches sort of phrasing and, you know, on a hot day, it gets up into the 100s or up into the 40s for our Celsius.
But yeah, we have that sort of extreme. It's not as extreme as some of the places, obviously across the States. But we do have those extremes and in a nice period in between, but still we have a solid heating load. You know, in our traditional buildings were heating-based climate. So they had this challenge of getting off gas and they did this amazing assignment, which, you know, when we landed it to the university executive, they were just like, what the hell is this?
You want us to jump to a 100% renewables and you want us to rip out all our gas, which would have been back in, I don't know, 2016 or something where, you know, people were talking about it, but people weren't really doing it. Yeah. So to be honest, it kind of, you know, I was pumped about it and the students were pumped about it, but it kind of sat on the shelf for a couple of years.
So I went away and wrote a book on positive energy homes and licked my wounds of the university executives saying no. But eventually the came around again and we got a new Vice Chancellor, which is the equivalent of our SEO, and she said, climate change is one of the most important global issues of our time.
You know, I'm going to lead an organization, that's making a difference. And, you know, we want to offset the grades that don't cost the planet. So she said, send me a Net Zero target. And I'm like, Oh, here's a nice little plan I presented earlier. But yeah, that leadership moment is critical. When you look at those history shows that the leadership is critical.
So she came out and said, do this. And we served up the plan in 2017 and she took it to the council, which is the equivalent of our board. And from there, we set the goal of 2030. We wanted to get off gas and we want it to be powered by a hundred percent renewable. So at the time, lots of organizations committing to carbon neutral, lots of them committing to a hundred percent renewable electricity, but few committing to really making this transition as a whole.
And since then, pleasingly lots of jumped on board, not Sinai followed us, but I like to think that lots of people aiming at it, but certainly a lot of heavy lifting and hence the 10 year program to get there, to change out all the infrastructure.
James Dice: [00:15:48] Very cool.
Two questions. So you just glossed over the fact that you went and wrote a book.
Tell me more about this positive energy home book.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:16:00] Yeah. So I guess I was as you know, and as many listeners when they were working on buildings, you kind of start with the controls and the kit. You know, can I make the kit run better? And I'm sure many of your listeners have had a crack at changing set points.
And the big lessons for me with changing set points was you think that you've got a dead band of two degrees because that's what the building automation system tells you. But in the building, it's more like five or six degrees. So we did a program one year where we said, you know, we can save a whole lot of energy and you can, we worked out about 6% per degree of set point dead band you increase.
But when you go from, you know, a couple of degrees, dead band and you change it a little bit, you know, the building blows out. And you get this, you know, broader range of dead band. So yeah, effectively what I ran up against, again and again, with trying to tune the mechanical systems was you had single-glazed unshaded windows and I don't care how good your HVAC system is, if you're sitting next to that, the radiant heat is just killing the occupant. And then likewise in winter, you've got drafts falling off that window, and you know, the temperature sensor on the wall might say, it's perfect, but the person in the room has experienced something different. So I guess I got really deep into building physics and again, teaching it helped me refine it.
There's nothing like standing in front of 50 certified of your engineers and having to know your stuff. So I really got deep into that. I got into the Living Building Challenge and their positive energy or Net Zero energy buildings. You know, Bullitt Center was my hero for many years there. And I guess effectively said, all right, there's a knowledge gap here for me.
And yeah, let's put it into a book. So a lady, Kara Rosemeier from New Zealand who is a Passivhaus guru, her and I wrote the book about how you do this for homes and homes are low energy density. You have three or four people in this huge space. You got plenty of row space. So if you create a home where you're managing your moisture, you're creating comfortable environment for your occupants.
And you're pumping fresh air in which is critical. The idea of pumping air into homes is still a strange concept for most, but she did her PhD on air quality. So she had all these graphs of just diabolical, CO2 levels in bedrooms and all those things. So it really came together for us. This is where we spend our lives.
You know, we gotta put this information out there and I guess it was, the home is a simpler approach, so we started down that path and had this wonderful experience of writing a book. And, um, it really set the tone for how we approach buildings at Monash for me. And I guess after that, we started the big challenge of trying to build Passivhaus at scale, you know, homes are complicated beasts, but then nothing like a big complicated lab or teaching building or office buildings.
James Dice: [00:18:52] Right, right.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:18:54] Actually the foreword of the book is from the guy who ran The Tree Hugger blog actually wrote the forward for our book so back together.
James Dice: [00:19:02] Oh, that's great. That's great. Oh, so my second question was how you're defining 100% renewable? Does that mean you're able to produce or purchase offsets or is it a 100% renewable electrons coming directly to your end uses?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:19:19] Yeah. And great definition. So what we defined as is Net Zero and Kara, my coauthor always hangs it on me for net.
She's like, net doesn't work. If everyone does net, then the grid doesn't work. But how do you explain to people? So we needed a tagline. We needed something that we could stand behind. So we went with net and I guess Net Zero emissions for us means that on an annual basis, we are generating or putting as much renewable energy into the grid as we're consuming.
So for a research heavy organization for buildings that have students in them, 12 hours a day, going hard at it and, you know, incredibly high energy densities or at least pre COVID. It's just not possible for us to generate that much energy. So we did the math and worked out, but best case if we covered every single roof space, which has, we know is not possible because there's plant on there, there's asbestos, paint, there's always complexities on rooves that you just never dream of until you get into it. We can probably generate about 10% of our total energy requirements.
James Dice: [00:20:21] Wow.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:20:21] So the big balance of it is get as much out there as we can. We've got about four megawatts of solar on our rooftop now. But the balance is through a wind farm in Victoria, which is the state we're in.
So we've got about roughly 30 megawatts of effectively, laced wind turbines, where basically, the generator there, obviously there's a company that runs it, Res, that runs the wind farm. But we effectively on the electrons, which we sell back into the grid and then we retire the renewable energy certificates, or at least a portion of them as we transition up to renewable energy.
So there's a two parts to Net zero. You've got to generate enough renewable energy, either directly or indirectly to cover your loads. And then you've got to get off the gas. And in our case at this stage, based on the technology, make everything electric, I'm very open and happy to have the arguments that will come around the role of bio gas or hydrogen in the future.
But right now you just can't beat high efficiency, heat pump.
James Dice: [00:21:19] Totally.
I actually thought of the third question I had before we kind of dive into the more of the specifics here. The students that wrote that plan, you know, back in 2016, what are they doing now? Are they doing cool stuff? They sounded like some smart people.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:21:34] Yeah, they were. They were absolute pleasure to work with. So they've gone on to great careers. One of them works for Arab. She was doing all sorts of great environmental studies around them. And I think last time I checked into, she was over in Wales, working over there on this type of work. One of them I selfishly held and kept for many years and he helped me develop the whole Net Zero program, Tim Hoban, absolute gem, and Tim's ability for me to throw something out there at him and he'll go, I'll give it a go. You know, blindly ignorant how hard it was, but he's like, he didn't know. So he just got on and did it, it was an absolute winner. He's now at the city of Melbourne helping with their, basically them on their journey now, which is a really great outcome. Great. And then the other lady, Jo she went on and now she's working, in the traffic and roads development across Melbourne.
So a really successful engineering in her own right now.
James Dice: [00:22:26] Awesome.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:22:28] Getting a little emotional, but as you would be experiencing with your courses now. You know, seeing the students that you influence go on and do great things it's really pleasing.
James Dice: [00:22:37] Oh yeah. Yeah, definitely. It hasn't quite, I think of it like a snowball, it hasn't quite snowballed enough to that point yet.
But there's a couple of early indications with our course that's yeah, I'll probably be tearing up here soon. Cool. So I want to talk a little bit more about the Net Zero Initiative. The people that are waiting for the normal technology discussions we'll get there in just a minute.
So you talked about sort of procuring the, the PPA or the wind wind farm. Let's talk about eliminating gas. Like, how are you approaching that? Obviously for a new building it's a design problem. I think more, what I'm wondering about is, well, let's just unpack new buildings first. So I'm assuming it's like you said air source, water source, heat pump approach for heating. Is that the approach?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:23:25] Yeah. So as you said, new buildings much, much easier. And we were lucky that at the time we announced the university was going through a building boom. So I had a whole series of buildings that I could crack this nut with. So we've now got four at scale buildings. And when I say at scale, we've got a teaching lab, we've got a very large education building.
We've got 150 a apartment rezzy college and a five story office building that have all been built to all electric and at least three of them, built to the passive house standard to a certification. So it was just this really lucky time where, you know, we got to explore and frankly, got to transform the industry because no one was building like this and engineer after engineer said, no, you can't do it.
I'd find these case studies from around the world and I'd find the engineer that done it. And I joined the dots and say, they can do it. Why can't you do it? So I'd really set this challenge, but I guess the passive house standard comfort first, and for those people who aren't aware of it, or think that maybe it's just a quirky German standard.
I like to root it back into the physics. The whole premise of Passive House is that you need to air to breath, as we all know, good air quality. So they work out how much air you need per person per hour to do that. And then effectively. The rest of the design is built off that. So basically for a home you need about 30 cubic meters per hour.
Sorry, I don't know what the translation is. Um, and they say, okay, you've got to deliver that somehow into the home. And that's your energy budget for heating and cooling. So the amount of heat that you can squeeze into that 30 cubic meter of air is how much energy you should be allowing yourself for heating and cooling and then design back your building envelope.
So you can achieve that.
James Dice: [00:25:15] Okay. I think that's 15 CFM and just math in my head real quick. I think that's 15 CFM for US-based people.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:25:23] Thanks for the translation. So then, and you've got to radiating environments that are comfortable, so you're making sure your surface temperatures aren't dropping below a certain temperature.
So, you're not getting the cold experience of sitting next to a window and critically, so you're not getting condensation forming, which leads to mold and, you know, obviously degregation of indoor inquirement quality and the degradation of the building itself. So if you think about that from a Passive House point of view, you are getting right down to very low heating and cooling requirements, which makes it much, much easier to electrify your building.
James Dice: [00:25:55] Hmm. Okay.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:25:56] So that's kind of where we started. Get the envelope, good. And then reduce your heat loads. That doesn't help you if you're running in an anatomy lab and you need to flush the building full of air all the time, because you need to flush out the formaldehyde or whatever it is that they use to embalm bodies and such.
Um, so I guess where we got to was looking at all the different tricks that you can do to reduce that heating load. So heat recovery ventilation it's sometimes questioned is, is the economics there? We're finding that in our climate, on an annual kilowatt hour basis, it's probably not. But on a peak demand basis and on that, keeping people comfortable, easy and reducing your chiller size, reducing your heat pump, it's worth it.
So I guess, getting to the heat pumps. If you reduce your heating load. And in our case, we've got one building where we actually don't have any active heating anymore. We just use heat recovery. We use the occupants of the building to do so. And I'll touch on that again in a moment, cause it's had its challenges, but get your heat load down and then use your heat pumps.
And again, in our climate air source is a good option. We don't have them on our sites. We don't have a good groundwater base. It's too deep down. So we haven't been using geothermal, but I've seen really great examples up in North America where, tap into the ground and you've got a really good source of effectively heat for your heat pumps.
But you know, heat pump technology, as we know is far more efficient than a boiler, you know, that can run down into sort of 60%. Whereas these things, they've got their CoP up in the 2.5, 3, depending on your temperature range. And I guess what we've found is that with the right refrigerants, you know, these new CO2 heat pumps and those type of things, especially for domestic hot water, it's been relatively easy, once you get the engineer convinced to do it. And I guess the other challenge is that it's a different control strategy. You know, we all know about split systems that can go back and forth, but when you're talking about a full commercial scale heat pump on the roof and switching between heating and cooling and buildings that want a bit of heat, a bit of cool at the same time Georgia early on that plant, you know, you've got to think it through.
Um, but it's all very doable. And I guess then jumping to what I'm imagining. The second part of your question was, is how do you do it for the existing buildings, which, you know, the new buildings were AAV. Like I said, we almost don't heat them. They heat themselves from the inside and you just manage the heat load, basically you're extracting heat.
Um, and in the rezzy college, uh, which had passive house standard, you know, like I said, it does most of the heating itself. It's been incredible to watch that building perform. The temperature variations in it on a sort of 24 hour cycle a few degrees, if a few degrees Fahrenheit, a couple of degrees Celsius and the empty building drifts, very, very little.
So the physics works basically no surprises. And we found in the winter months, when the students go, we have about three or four weeks off in the middle of winter, when students go back. Visit their family and stuff. So the empty building became a problem for us because we no longer had our heaters been, you know, the showers and the humans.
And we found that we put about a five panel heaters that you just buy from your local appliance store around the building. And it heated the whole building. It was incredible.
Okay. So you turn everything
James Dice: [00:29:09] off, seal everything mechanically and then just turn some, yeah. All right. Plug them in the wall.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:29:16] We we're pumping fresh air through the whole time because there was still students there.
So, but just that little bit of heat top out was enough to keep the building comfortable. And it also gave variety in terms of... there's one student who I saw in the data who, I'm assuming came from a tropical climate, because they run their room with a little portable heater at about 26, 27, which must be sort of 70, in Fahrenheit.
They like it warm. And then another student who left their window open all the time and kept it cold because I like it. So it really gave this great diversity for people to have the option. But anyway, coming back to electrifying new existing buildings, the challenges come. Your coils, aren't designed to take the cooler water temp. We have a high temperature, hot water loop at one of our campuses. So we're pumping, you know, very high damage of water around the campus. Don't know the conversion, so I won't even try. But the coil, the water temperature into existing buildings is typically higher than heat pumps will provide.
They're getting better and you know, you can talk them up and do multi-step heat pumps, but I guess the challenge for us is in some cases, um, putting in new coils, so you have a bigger surface area, so you can use the lower temperature. But I guess getting back to some of the tech is improving your control strategy.
So you're getting the heat in at the right time and you're creating and doing all those kind of tricks. But for us, it's a case of trying to electrify that plant in a kind of pricing scale because replacing every chiller and every boiler is pretty challenging. So we're doing cost as a buildings. So I will take, say a science cluster of buildings, what type the rezzy cluster of buildings.
And we're doing centralized plan, which introduces some energy losses, as we know. But it allows those, I guess, the cycling of heat pumps on and off. And it also allows the economies of scale and, you know, the Joel JD and, you know, the partial loading of the chillers and all that sort of good stuff, but it allows us to effectively provide all electric, renewable powered, hot and cold water to these buildings.
And then either through some upgrades of the heating distribution, or through better control, we're finding that you can start that transition. Ideally you retrofit and you insulate the building and you make your job a lot easier. But as we know, that's expensive and just not realistic for the vast majority of buildings we have out there.
James Dice: [00:31:29] Totally. Are you looking at, um, electric resistance to kind of supplement things? Or how does that conversation work?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:31:36] I'm to guilty admit that one of the things I did when I started in energy management was ripped out electric resistant heating and put in gas because it was lower carbon. That's what you did 10, 12 years ago.
James Dice: [00:31:50] Yeah. I've done it too, just so you know.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:31:54] We're on the same page. Guilty of that little gem. I guess the trick there is that, and it's this balance between, you know, I used to chase kilowatt hours and now I'm chasing renewable energy. So resistant electric is still far more efficient than gas. It's almost double once you factor in the pipe losses and all that type of stuff.
So from an efficiency point of view, it's not as equal as I used to think it was, it's just not as good as a heat pump. And if you're powering it by relatively cheap and potentially zero marginal cost for renewables, where I hope we get to, then it's not a terrible outcome. So you've hit the nail on the head. that some of the strategy can be that you pump in your heat pump, hot water, but if you need a top up for that, 20 minutes in the morning where you're doing the pre-cool once the building's warmed up, we're good for the day. It's just really that sort of 7:00 AM warm up on a cold winter's morning that you really need to hit it.
So in that case, using a bit of electric for, really probably less than 10 hours a year for some of these buildings, it's, it's a cheap, effective, and super easy to control, solution. So again, I argued in the book with my coauthor. She's like, well it's only resistance. I'm like, it feels wrong.
And she's like, but you're only using a 100 watts to heat a whole house, so what's the big deal? In the Passive House case. So yeah, we are, we're playing in that space.
James Dice: [00:33:14] Yeah. Yeah. I think it's sort of a no brainer from the standpoint of, especially at retrofit where, you know, you could make a choice of extremely expensive coil replacements or you could, you know, supplement things here or there. Cool.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:33:29] So I guess and touching on that and the cost, you don't get to net Net Zero without some investment.
And you know, there are costs associated with it. As we know, the infrastructure is a big shift as we've been talking about. But this dream of zero imaginable costs energy, we're not quite there yet, but in parts of Australia where we have great renewable resources, it's starting to play out. We're starting to say at the start of this market where you can get free or even, uh, energy that people will pay you to take.
So there's this great example where South Australia Water, which is effectively the utility that provides water to South Australia, as you would expect a state in the South of Australia. And South Australia is really leading the world in this space. They're up to about 70% renewables. And on a given day, they can be entirely powered by solar or wind they're connected to the broader Australian grid.
So they do have that backup. But in this case, uh, South Australia water has a whole bunch of pumping infrastructure has a whole bunch of storage infrastructure, which they can generate power off. And I guess it's flexible load because the dams needed to be topped out and the water needs to be supplied, but it doesn't have to happen instantaneously.
It can happen in different times of day. So rather than Net Zero, emissions, they're going for Net Zero energy costs. So they're playing this game where, when they've got excess power, when the grid's full of power and indeed when the market goes negative, which it tends to do relatively regularly over there, they pump and they store up and then when the grid goes hot and they need to turn down, they do so, and then they start exporting.
So the idea is that they can make more money through exporting energy than they spend through consuming energy.
James Dice: [00:35:13] Wow. Okay.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:35:14] Or even they can make money through consuming energy, because like I said, the spot market goes negative. So we're not there as a university. We have nowhere near that kind of control, but that's the premise that their running for. That in a market place where if you have that flexibility, you can take advantage of grid spikes, and you can turn down and make money.
You can share it with your retailer. And one of your podcasts touched on this, the value left on the table. Um, and also when energy is cheap, you can crank up your wind turbine. You can store up your batteries, you can heat your buildings, all those type of things, and be in a position where you're running a high energy university.
So I guess there's this balance for us of how much energy can we save, which is just, you know, money on the table, as we know. But how much flexibility can we build into our city? So we can stop playing in is increasingly renewable power and low cost grid. And we've seeing the energy price collapse over the last year or so, uh, which primarily it's from a reduction of global gas, the gas was driving out energy market process and they were through the roof.
We were paying ridiculous amounts of the gas and it was driving up electricity costs. But renewables have flooded into the market and gas demand across Asia has dropped off and our gas prices have gone down. And now we've got all this renewable energy in the grid and the energy prices have really backed off.
So we're seeing a world where it's increasingly renewable and it's getting cheaper and cheaper. So being able to play in that space and, you know, make the most of the grid services revenues, and being able to maximize cheap energy and respond to expensive energy, uh, comes I guess, to the core of your podcasts, which is good control means good economics for your buildings.
And I guess that's how we're selling these transition to Net Zero. It's the right thing to do. It's a position for the university, but at the end of the day, so far, other than the heavy investment in plant, which we needed to do to keep our buildings running, you know, being powered by wind energy is saving us money because it's cheaper than the grid.
And obviously our rooftop solar has a great payback and the ability, in time, to effectively make money off grid services is again a great avenue for us to continue to invest in better buildings and better controls.
James Dice: [00:37:32] Absolutely. Cool. So I want to talk obviously about smart building technology, which will get on how you create flexibility and just a second, or how you're going to create flexibility.
But I want to just talk a little bit more about, is there anything else that like lessons learned on Passive House, like building in that way that you sort of haven't shared yet? Because I can't imagine the, I mean, you hinted at it with the procurement challenges, like getting an engineer to sort of design, but I can't imagine that's the only struggle that you had, and building a new way at scale.
You said you did some big buildings in this way, too. Um, and I'm just picturing all the buildings that I've been a part of where doing things in new ways is always extremely, extremely difficult. So can you explain what am I missing here?
Yeah. And it's interesting now it feels easy, but it was so hard and it was years in the making.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:38:32] So we and, you know, we didn't, single-handedly, there's other players in the space, but we had to kind of retrain to thinking of the industry and build up the capability. So we did it. We did it progressively in buildings. I do good insulation and air tightness in one building, you know, did heat pumps in another building till I had case studies in our own environment of all the elements you need to come together and Passive House.
It's the classic, uh, of you put it all together and you tunnel through the cost barrier. There's still quality buildings. So there's no doubt that these buildings cost more to build. They cost less to operate and they shouldn't come in a huge premium, but you're talking about getting your builder on the line.
So building a good building and that's not always easy. Yeah, but the trick is to get your architects, your engineers, and your builder together to do integrated design. There's nothing new here. It's just very hard to do. And this is how, you know, every successful building. And I've seen, it's worked that they got in up front and they said, okay, architecturally, if you do that, it's going to be very hard to seal up the building and insulate it.
And engineering wise, you know, if you do that, it's going to be too expensive to build. So having that dynamic, having the play, and I guess the easiest example for me was once we matured the map and we ran training courses and we egg them on and we took the big construction companies and we pitted them against each other.
We got one to basically pick up our first building, which was a timber building sale T cross laminated timber. They wanted that building because the other big player in the market was building sale T and had the edge. So they grabbed out and say, I'll tell you building. And they added passive cast to it.
And then guess who picked up our next passive house building? It was the, have a big fire in the market who wanted to add, pass the class to their resume. So these companies came on the journey and they led it for it. We couldn't have done it without them. And it was the same for the consultants. They wanted that edge, but the trick was integrated design and a really nice example in the very first design meeting for our rezzy the environment or the ASD consultant sat down and said, all right, I know you want to talk about architecture.
I know you want to talk about floor layouts and mechanical systems, but what we need to design upfront is what fridge are we going to select for the units? Because every unit has a fridge. And if we got the crappy, cheap, inefficient fridge that was going to cook the building. Okay. So it was almost the fridge selection that started to define the architecture, the layout, the engineering of the building, because you know, there's small spaces.
So a fridge kicks out a lot of heat and what you want to do is manage heat. You want to manage it so it's not too cold, but if you put a source of heat in there, then you've got to add cooling to draw it out. So yeah, I'm overplaying it for the effects, but yeah, it was that kind of conversation upfront.
And the architects we'd work room for years, he'd done a whole bunch of buildings for us. He was ready for the challenge. So we rolled with it, et cetera. Let's go down to the local appliance store and find one that works and we'll design the architecture around that.
James Dice: [00:41:36] Wow. Wow. That's really cool. That's a fun story. So. All right. So I think that kind of is a good segue. It's super insightful. Also a good segue into smart building technology, because I think if I had to sort of categorize like where we're at right now as a smart buildings industry, I think it's now, like people are now wanting an edge by like design firms, general contractors, developers. The edge is now in the technology as well. So super efficient super energy forward, but also super technology forward as well. I think that's going to be the competition line moving forward. Before we talk about the actual technology though, I want to talk about and this kind of gets at what you just talked about sort of your role as the champion of technology for the university.
So it's not just the energy champions, it seems like it's becoming the technology champion as well. And this is a core piece of my course you and I haven't talked about this, but it sort of underpins each lesson in the course, which is here's the mindset and here's the role of the champion and overcoming the obstacles that our industry is so good at creating.
So can you talk about your role in getting this program off the ground?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:42:53] Yeah. And that's a good segue because I guess where we got to with these great buildings is you basically make them as passive as possible. The systems are super simple. You've got a bit of treatment heating and cooling, and we've got a ventilation system, which are much, much easier to control when you're full on BAV and all of these reheats and the home and all that sort of stuff, which is important, but challenging.
And I guess we got there through that integrated design. So my role in that process was to not be an expert in anything, but to know enough that every single little bit that when the architect said something, I'm like, this is how you do it. And it helps like it's a throwaway line, but when you wrote the book, you can sit at the table and say, this is how you do it.
This is where we've done it. And then they can't you know come back and say, Oh, you don't know what you're talking about. And most of the case, I didn't know what I was talking about, but it was just that confidence enough to say, you should go and learn this if you don't know it. And for me, it's the same in the smart building space.
You know, we very quickly hit the wall of, we had these amazing buildings that are still needed commission still needed to reach in them just because they were, these world-leading buildings didn't mean that the best system was any better than any of our other systems. And this is frankly where we fell down on these things and we had this great opportunity with one of the buildings.
It's an education building for IT, energy engineering. And the academic said, we want to use the building in our teaching and we want to show how it works. We want to expose the control. I'm like brilliant. Let's do it. But the journey to find all the systems, the journey, to understand how we could expose that data, make it, you know, available, make it usable, make it useful for teaching and research was very, very hard. And I get into this space of, we have these systems on our campus and in our buildings that no one in the university actually understands and potentially doesn't even know they're there because the contractor comes in and they installed some controlled circuit for AV or for a lift or some special little camera in a corner that does something.
And then they leave and we have no idea what it is and it's all proprietary. It's all locked up. So I guess the role of the champion is to...
James Dice: [00:45:07] You're right. It's got their sticker. You can call them if you, if you want to figure out what it is. Yeah.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:45:12] Yeah. But the code itself costs a $100.
So it's getting that understanding together and getting people to be able to assist them for me, you know, it's the same in the building. It is a system of heat flow. The controls are the same. And I guess the big hurdle for me was I had no IT background. So it was the gap between OT and IT. I was talking to OT I'd kept drawing these kind of technology stacks in my ignorance, where I had the edge devices, the controllers, the sensors, the chillers hanging off these things and I take it to my IT colleagues and say, I need this data to get here.
And basically anything below the IP kind of layer as I call it, you know, they were across servers and where it needed to see it. And is it on AWS? Is it on-prem all that sort of stuff. Great. But I couldn't quite make the leap to these edge devices. There's edge control. You want to run AI at the edge and you want to control a physical asset that were great for a timetable system.
They were great for managing enrollments, all these platforms that are native in the cloud, but were blended with OT. It was a big challenge. And frankly, the, this is where the podcast has been brilliant for me because it's allowed me to lift up and to pick up the language to start communicating better with these people.
So I guess over the last two years, it's been drilling into each of these systems understanding enough, so I could hold a conversation and then slowly piecing together, all the different people to say, all right, you understand cyber security and what I need to do to connect this thing to the network.
Okay. You understand that I've got a meter over here and all I want to do is get the data out of it. Into a platform, then I can use it. Yep. And you know, these are my options and the big, big challenge, which, you know, you early talked about in your podcast about the sales hype or, you know, the marketing jargon is for years and years and years, we went to the vendors and said, how do we do this?
Which we got solutions, but we got lots and lots and lots of solutions. And none of them talked to each other. Yeah. So the big challenge for us now, and I guess what I'm driving is the champions. How do we champion your language? Not so much mine. Because I feel like we're only on the start of it, but is how do we do it in a scalable and repeatable fashion?
How do we make OT, as we call it, operational technology, enterprise IT? So rather than run my meter through a controller into a bass proprietary system and then try and extract the data out into a database and then try and translate it into enterprise analytics platforms, just pick the mud bus data up onto the IP network and dump it straight into, enterprise IT platform, because it's just numbers timestamped, and it's no different from any other data set, but I've never had it there.
Like I've spent years and years and years extracting data from the control controllers because it was too hard to get it out of the database and years, and years and years of trying to backfill gaps in data because the control had turned off because power loss or someone was servicing it. It's just not good data management, but I had no idea we were doing it so wrong.
James Dice: [00:48:25] Oh man, that, that gives me fond memories of early in my career. Lots of exports from Medicis and spreadsheets and yeah, plugging directly into data logger to get the meter data, all that fun stuff.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:48:41] If you cut one building, that's fine. But if you're trying to manage a portfolio and you're trying to scale, and this is the opportunity for us, and this is the machine learning and AI opportunity that we want to do it at scale.
James Dice: [00:48:53] Totally. So you guys have, uh, like a separate IT group and then you have your facilities group and do you sit in the facilities side of things? And so you're kind of bridging that gap a little bit?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:49:05] Yeah. Spot on. So we have an IT division and we have a property division and eventually I annoyed the CIO enough that she agreed to appoint someone across our two divisions.
So now we have this incredible lady that used to work in, it worked for her while away for awhile. So, she really gets his space and she's half IT half property. And she's the translator. She finds the right people on each side and she brings them together and says, you need to do this.
And she's just been brilliant.
James Dice: [00:49:38] Love that. Love that. Yeah. That's part of what I feel like the champion doesn't necessarily need to be that person, but they need to have people in places like that, that they can go poke essentially.
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So you've talked quite a bit about access control and meters and building automation systems.
So I'm wondering, before we get into the sexy technology, let's talk about the, the, the old silos, right? So given the fact that you guys are going where we're about to talk about you're going driven by these, that zero, basically Net Zero goal. You've probably realized, like you just said, like it's difficult to get data that you need to be able to optimize systems, you need to be able to hit these goals.
And so what have you had to do from the standpoint of, your contractors and your existing systems to make the data useful?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:50:57] Yeah, so it's, again, one of those pivotal moments was we sat down with one of building automation vendors. You know, a local company, independent automation.
They've been really great in terms of exploring this journey. But I said, in my naivety, I said, I want to make the bass machine readable. And he's like, I understand what you mean. Let me just explain something to you. And he brought up a bass graphic and it had a great floor plan and this incredible animation showing the chiller spinning and all these type of things and, you know, had all the data points on it.
And then he said, all right, take away the picture. And what you have left with is icons located on a screen that are randomly named and he's like, the data is there, but it means nothing without a picture behind it. So without the human matching the picture to the icons and the data, it was useless, nearly useless for a machine, it couldn't understand it.
So we started on this journey of, how do we start structuring the data? So if you take away the picture. It still works. And the machine doesn't care about the picture he wants to know. The fan coil unit is here, here and there, and it's related to that. So we started on the journey of haystack and we brick on to break.
And I guess the critical bit was proving the value because as anyone who's played in this space is knows it's not super mature. We're not at economies of scale here where you can just go and grab a data scientist and tag up your building. So we started tagging first one, it took us a year. And when I say us, someone who is much smarter than me doing it.
And there's this great story. We did our second one and we did this great visualization and it's tagged up and you can see the relationships and showcase the floor. And in real time, we can bring the work orders together with the data from the field were rented into our enterprise analytics platform, and we were starting to do all this great machine learning because if you're an enterprise platform, you've got real machine learning rather than some roles that a bass technician program into your bass, but I'm like, how come you already have a show me full three of these buildings? And eventually it's like, we're still working on one, two, three, and five, because it just takes that long to tag it up when you don't have a big enterprise tool to do so.
So I guess coming back to your actual question is I vaguely remember it now is this transition to make the data machine readable? You know, it's been a long one and I guess we're at the point now where we're feeling confident that we have done enough to prove the value at individual pilot level at a couple of building levels that,DER level, you know, solar and batteries and those type of stuff.
And now the big challenge, the big opportunity for us is how do we do it at scale? How do we build an industry around this and bring it together?
James Dice: [00:53:45] Cool. And that's, that's sort of to be determined to next steps. Basically.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:53:51] That's the challenge that is right in front of us now, you know, I've got some pretty solid ideas of how I think we do it, but I guess being on the passive house, Jen, you've been on the electrification journey, the biggest thing I've learned is you need enough confidence to move forward, but don't think for a second that you've got the answer. Because you need to keep learning every step of the way. You just need to know what you're going to do next and know where you want to get to.
James Dice: [00:54:17] That's another champion mindset.
I love that. All right. So you sent me this document. It is a, I don't even know what that the platform was. That was like a note-taking platform and...
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:54:28] It's in Miro and I only say it because we're all working virtually now and Miro has been an incredible platform for us to whiteboard and stitch ideas together.
James Dice: [00:54:37] Yeah, absolutely. I think I'm going to start using that. So can you explain, first of all, what is the name of this thing? And can you explain what it is?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:54:48] Yeah. So I guess I talked about having to map out all the different systems and, you know, I talked about that education buildings before I started chasing down and Kuren did a huge amount of work for us here, mapping the different systems.
And Kuren beautifully wrote out this diagram that showed all the systems and exactly how he would present it as someone from the bass world. And I'd put it in front of the IT people, and it didn't make sense to them because, they view the world very differently. Think about it as a virtual whiteboard, we started mapping out these clusters of information and where they sit very high level, we have, at the top, what we call the sort of the common building data layer or, you know, a data clearing house is what we're kind of aiming for, where you have all the ubiquitous building data.
So this concept of energy data, which we know is, in every building and is relatively easy to get, if you do your homework and it tells you a lot. It can tell you whether fans failing. It can tell you whether people are comfortable because you can see how much cooling and heating are you using.
It can tell you occupancy levels. There's so much richness in the energy signature, if you have the right tools to use. So then there's things like wifi, things like weather car pack, occupancy, these things that give you predictions around how busy your building's going to be. Do I need to start ramping up, timetable, bookings, all those types of things.
So data sets that are common to every building is what we're trying to pull together at, I guess, a campus level, or, as I call it the enterprise level. So it's kind of sitting at the top of this diagram as we're drawing it out. So imagine kind of a cloud up there. The idea is to get that data together, normalize it against space because space is what it's all about.
This chiller, this energy, this wifi, this web, they all relate back to this room or this space, those spaces index, and obviously time, but you have this concept of this sort of smart platform at the top that ideally then you can start to plug into the cloud. So, you know, there's a whole bunch of cloud providers out there, but as we know for anyone, who's tried it, getting your data into their world, it's a challenge. And ideally you want to make it as easy as possible. So you kind of get into ideally a plug and play environment. So rather than doing a major data transformation, every time you want to try a new vendor, the data is there. It's already organized and it's a relatively simple transformation to start using their analytics or their new AI or whatever it is.
So I guess that's the kind of data clearing house that sits on top of everything that, you know, at a campus level looks over it. And I guess once you add intelligence to it, you can kind of think about as the brain. And then sitting underneath that you have these different elements that make up a campus.
James Dice: [00:57:26] Wifi would be used to do what with? Count people?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:57:30] Yeah. Proxy for occupancy. So it's, terrible at counting individuals or at least it's challenging to count individuals because you get into a whole bunch of privacy concerns and there's blades, you know, you can pick up people across buildings and all that sort of stuff.
And then people bring in four phones one day and you get...
James Dice: [00:57:49] Someone who's got an iPhone and an iPad and a laptop and yeah. Okay.
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:57:54] Exactly. So, but it gives you a proxy and that's what we need for buildings. We need to know relatively how busy is the building. And last time I saw this many devices connected, you know, I needed to crank the chiller at this type of range or whatever it is.
Okay. So wifi is a really useful proxy. And I guess we've seen particularly through COVID that it's been really useful for understanding social distancing, scheduling and understanding, I guess the relationship between occupancy and building. And anyone who's been looking at their buildings knows that you can only, with a traditional bass system, you can only turn your building down so much and keep it open. So we had this example where we had students coming for exams, energy, went up, the wifi correlated, beautifully. The data was great. And then the students went away and it's still 80% of the energy was humming in the building, because, you know, we just couldn't turn it down partially, you know, it's kind of on or off because that's how the building's been designed to run.
Okay. So I guess using those different proxies to be able to predict, you know, if the carpark fills up by nine o'clock, we know that the library is about to get smashed. So we start to turn it up is the theory we are not there yet, but that's the kind of premise of brain is common data set together. I see.
James Dice: [00:59:06] Cool. And you mentioned tools for analyzing energy profiles. What are there any that you would be able to say out loud or?
Rob Brimblecombe: [00:59:16] Yeah, definitely. And, uh, James and I had a quick chat about, probably in procurement, but in this case it's a relatively public where we've done a trial over the last 18 months with ENGIE and C3.
So ENGIE has this huge partnership with Ohio State and now Iowa State but effectively, they developed this platform called Smart Institutions. Which is at that campus level and the idea of bringing buildings together and using C3's AI tools effectively, you can feed the data up and, you know, they can do that energy analytics at campus scale.
They can do the forecast, they can look for the anomalies, you know, track your plant and stuff. And there's a whole range of other companies of course, out there that do it. This is just a particular partner that we're excited about and have been doing the trial with that, I guess it is that high-level vision and the intelligence that you can put it, that kind of brain level of the diagram.
James Dice: [01:00:07] Got it. Cool. All right, proceed.
Rob Brimblecombe: [01:00:09] So then, sitting underneath that we have the different elements that make up the campus. So we have the buildings themselves. So imagine a collection of smart buildings. And at this stage we're primarily working in Niagara or N4. And we're currently doing a massive migration as we call it, from envision from continuum, from the many different systems that we managed to collect over our BACnet years into our system.
We thought that if it was BACnet it, then everything would seamlessly stitch together. We were so wrong. So I guess we're doing Niagara, either native into the building or overlays. We're doing virtual Niagara overlays over envision and continuum in some cases, but effectively you have this collection of smart buildings sitting under this common data layer.
You have, an edge system where, you know, things like solar for batteries, AV charges, essentially putting the controller at the edge so you can aggregate the data, but also have some intelligence there to ramp it up and down to take a signal from the centralized intelligence to say, all right, we all need to turn on.
We all need to turn off to respond to the grid. And I guess the example here, we're not using it. We're actually working with Indra and their flex platform on this, but probably a common example. Some of your listeners might have heard on this. The Vultron. Yeah environment. And
by the time this goes live well, we have a deep dive coming up about Voltron that people will have heard.
Yeah. Great. So that ability to you don't need a full blown bass system and all the licensing program that it comes with, but having a pale say there, that you can put some intelligence into, you know, a little dockerized computer, basically, where you can write up your scripts and put it at the edge there.
It's great. Then obviously we have the asset management bit. So the work orders, the asset registry, all that type of stuff that sits together in a cloud with the investment sort of sitting off it. So I guess building out the picture of the diagram that you referred to is we kind of have this kind of brain, campus brain at the top.
And then we have all these distributed intelligence bits sitting under it, or at least we're working to it. And it became so big and unwieldy that eventually we started calling it the Kraken because it's looks not dissimilar from an octopus and, to stretch the analogy, octopi have this incredible intelligence. They're effectively, a mollusk, the same as an oyster, in terms of their lineage, but they're super intelligent and amazingly, they have a great brain, but many of the neurons are distributed around the body.
So it's a really great analogy because you have the legs and then you have the thousands of tentacles and the tentacles can operate independently of the brain. The suckers can independently operate from the tentacle, from the brain. So it's this organism that's incredibly smart, that has this distributed intelligence, and that's kind of how we're viewing this diagram and our campuses, that you have this central bit where, you know, decisions are made for the whole and the collective, but you also allow the tentacles and the suckers to do what they need to do at the edge to allow the overall system to work well.
And I guess the stretch of the analogy is that, someone dropped this on me the other day, which is really nice that the other things occupi can do is if they lose a leg, they can regrow one. And in this smart building world where things are learning and we're evolving, we make mistakes. And there's stuff that we're shelving, you've talked about it before, mothballed intelligence or, you know, the concept of analytics on the shelf.
There's a whole bunch of stuff we've done that, yeah, we're undoing now. We're re-emerging and regenerating. So it's become very fun, and certainly it's been picked up enterprise-wide that, the Kraken. We're working on the Kraken.
James Dice: [01:03:53] Oh, that's awesome. Uh, and it reminded me of this amazing documentary on Netflix called my octopus teacher.
I just wanted to say if anyone hasn't seen it exposes my, a little bit of my freak that I haven't exposed on the podcast, but, it, deaf people should definitely check it out. Uh, cool. Okay, so what's the status of the crack and sort of rolling it out, and all these different, let me just try to, guess here.
I'm assuming you're trying to like, fund it as different projects. Like you have the roadmap, where you want to get to in the end. And so what I'm used to doing is trying to basically shove it into all these different places and hope that at the end, it all comes together at some point. Is that, is that the approach or is it, like the dream would be that someone just funds it.
All right now. So what are you up to right now?
Rob Brimblecombe: [01:04:41] Yep. No, that's it. And the dream would be that someone could come and do it all for me, but the reality is that there's hundreds of people that need to get on board to help make this a reality. The status of it is that, I think we've proven out the value of each of the different elements.
And it's at scale, but again, a very small Krake n, at this stage. Um, you know, we've got a kind of, couple of buildings, complicated studies here and there just like we did with the kind of Net Zero building program. So I guess the four layers that I describe it as is, you know, that common data layer.
The smart building layer where individual buildings need to be intelligent, they need to be autonomous, and then they need to be able to talk to the campus and talk to the grid. The work order system, the asset management, it needs to be smart enough to keep the automation working. So I guess it's basically saying, you have an autonomous car, but if your camera stops working, you can't drive the car anymore.
So the work order system, the asset management system needs to keep that camera working and online at all times so the car can be autonomous and the same with the building. So there's a piece there around the smart asset management. And then the bit I alluded to, which we refer to as our micro grid is the distributed energy resources, the management and the coordination of that.
And when I say DER, it is batteries, it's solar, it's EV. And then the buildings themselves become the, if you will, like from a building point of view, horrendously complicated bespoke, needs to know itself and needs to have an AI dedicated to itself. But from a microgrid point of view, it's just another energy resource that it can communicate to and say, can you give me some kilowatts right now?
Because you know, I need to respond to the grid. So it's that kind of concept of the building sit in the DER world with their own embedded intelligence and the analogy here is if you think about a VRF system comes in with its own inbuilt controls. It can operate itself intelligently, efficiently, but if you network it and you say, Hey, the VRF just across the road is doing this, you might want to try it. You know, that type of sharing is the concept there.
James Dice: [01:06:44] Sort of like, Arcus orchestrator? Because I mean, Vultron could be capable of that, but you're talking about all the systems being autonomous. Vultron has intelligent load control at this point. Is that kinda what you're talking about? Where I'm telling Vultron how much capacity I need or how much capacity I have and it's making the decisions on where to send stuff?
Rob Brimblecombe: [01:07:05] Yeah. Forgive me if I misstep on Vultron, but how I see Vultron...
Yeah. Does that layer of the stack? I just, that's an example...
James Dice: [01:07:11] Yeah, totally.
Rob Brimblecombe: [01:07:13] We've got some colleagues and other universities across the States that are using it that we collaborate with, and I guess it's the equivalent to our Indra. We have nodes, which are basically like the Voltaren devices and the inflect supervisor. So what it does is it allows you to communicate in data aggregate.
So it's not dissimilar from, in for of the supervisor basically. And then what we're doing is effectively coding it up the algorithms to do the control on top of it. So it pulls the data together and says, this building's doing this and we've got 20 buildings connected. And a bunch of, they are connected to it at the moment that you can get a picture of the world.
And then, you know, in the cloud or wherever you put it in your server, you can run the analytics and say, alright, this is what we should do. Then effectively, the idea is, and we're not quite live yet, but we've been playing is that you go out and you make a deal with each of those DER and say, can you do this for me?
And then you aggregate that deal together. So. The devices need to be smart enough to know what they can and can't do to maintain comfort and all those types of things doing DER by changing comfort, doesn't make sense to me in terms of, why would you make your occupants uncomfortable to save a few dollars?
But if you can do it in a way where you can save a whole lot of dollars and the occupant is still comfortable or is willing to accept, that is great. So you have that coordinated intelligence sitting on top of the micro network, and that's something that we've been working on in-house and working with Indra on. But there are great examples out there of applications that is starting to emerge, that if you can plug in, you can do this commericaially.
James Dice: [01:08:45] Is the grid interaction piece of this, is that sort of still in the future or is it, is there any pilots around that at this point?
Rob Brimblecombe: [01:08:52] Yeah. So that's the one. So we're working, I guess, to your earlier question, we're working on all of these bits at once and limited resources, but the grid interaction, we were hoping to get the trial up this summer, but we've had a really mild summer, which means that we haven't actually had a lot of peak events.
And you know, that last 10% of integration is always the hardest bit. Totally. But I guess we have a retail agreement in place where if we get a peak event, um, and electricity spikes up to $1,400 a megawatt hour, then basically the deal we have with our retailer is if we can save a megawatt hour, they'll give us half and they'll take half.
So basically it reduces their exposure and we get the money as well. We get the other half of it. So the idea there is that by aggregating, we have the signal from the market, which is kind of coming from that common data brain bit that we can say, okay, there's a peak event coming up, the market calls for demand response.
And we, you know, discharge our battery or we turned down or we crank up whatever it needs us to do to start to help the grid and in doing so, save ourselves some money. But I guess the bigger goal there is the more flexible our buildings are, the more renewables we can accommodate in our grid and the quicker we get to this world of demand and response following each other, you know?
James Dice: [01:10:04] Yeah, totally. So are you thinking about like sort of tracking and quantifying flexibility in any way? And do you have a theoretical, maximum flexibility and the kind of where you're at right now? How's that work.
Rob Brimblecombe: [01:10:17] That's exactly what we're working on. So a battery is easy because it comes out of the box and says, this is how much flexibility I have, but a building is not so easy.
We had some engineers have a crack at it, and they gave us a very disappointing answer to that question because they were looking in traditional bounds and they were using traditional control. So this is where we're starting to look at products. You've had them on the show, Brainbox AI. And we were talking to them at the moment, amongst a bunch of others, but they're working on this concept that if they can predict two to three hours into the future for chilled water demand and the airflow, then they can start to say, well, Yeah, I'll stop pre cooling, or this is how much flex I can bring into the building.
So I guess where we're at right now is not quite there. We're looking to trial those in the next couple of months, but what we're doing is kind of manually testing the buildings with our talented best technicians to say, if I pull this lever and I push that button, how much flight's going to get before the building starts to squeal, and we're bringing out behavior change researchers, and to engage with the occupants to say, well, what are you prepared to endure?
And we don't want them to enjoy it much, but effectively. We need them to be cognizant of what we're doing, and basically use them as the, the test environment to say, how much flex can you pull out of a building? So we can answer the question that you asked. The typical building can shed comfortably, you know, 10 to 15% of its demand for half an hour, or, you know, if it's two hours and it's 95% or whatever that is.
And as we know, every building is different. So know we need to tune that response to each right now. We're kind of selecting from a program to say, based on the response we needed from the grade full type program, one, two or three, but the goal is to allow the intelligence and the building to say, I can give you this much. If you do this for me.
James Dice: [01:11:58] Cool. You guys sound like such a great partner for someone like Brainbox or other startups that are trying to get these newfangled technologies off the ground. You guys sound like such an amazing, client, which would be fun to fund the work with you guys.
Rob Brimblecombe: [01:12:12] Yeah. I want to pick up on that because yeah, absolutely. I agree with you there, James. But, uh, this is what we're doing this year. So I guess we've got a couple of buildings tagged up in break. We've got 20 buildings, loosely tagged in haystack to interact with the microgrid piece. We've got, uh, our workflow system and some of our buildings connected into our enterprise analytics systems.
So we can start to do the asset tracking and critically making sure that when a work order is issued, that it's actually fixed. Track the data after it's fixed, rather than just pay the ticket. so we've got this, the start, the bones of it. We know we, we can't scale on our own. So we've got a call out to the market right now to say, come and work with us to do a test and learn.
So the goal for the next six to nine months is to test and learn these applications, these data structures, and say, we've seen enough that we know there's value here, but can we really stitch it together? So the call out there is to companies to help us scale our data model. You know, how do we scale the tagging?
How do we make that more efficient? How do we make the buildings more flexible? You know, how do we make that D a paste work? And you're, like I said, we've tried it all ourselves. But the goal now is to allow the, the market in and say, if you've got the idea in the world, come play with us. We're trying to create this innovation environment so we can help solve this and help other people follow and help other people come in and say which bit worked in which it didn't work.
And we'll do the bit that works. And as a university, we'll take the heat and the learning, because that's what we do. R and D on the bits that didn't work.
James Dice: [01:13:43] I love that. Obviously that's a great announcement to make on the podcast. So hopefully you get some people reaching out to you, which I'm sure you will.
Cool. All right. So besides that piece that exciting development of, of all these Nexus nerds that are about to reach out to you. What else are you looking forward to this year?
Rob Brimblecombe: [01:14:01] So a big thing that's been wonderful and, you know, I'm sensitive about it, but off the back of last year, homeschooling and all those, incredible experiences that came along with lock downs. Australia's in pretty good shape, you know, we're an Island, so we've contained it. In many cases, you know, there's Australians that can't get back yet because the boarders are pretty tightly closed, but we're almost, COVID free. You know, we have these allowed breaks, but it's getting back to normal life and getting back to using coatings probably.
And the learnings that come from it. You know, I mentioned before that our buildings with set and forget, you know, we designed them to be always owned because we had students streaming and we never had enough space. Whereas now it's just, I guess it's a coming of age, all the things that we're planning to do and now are needed and kind of justified in the new market.
We need to be able to show that we can bring fresh air into the building consistently. And we need to be able to ideally have flexible buildings, not just for the green interactive, but because people are using them differently. Yeah. I'm working from home today. I was in the office yesterday. I'm in the office again tomorrow.
So I'm working where it's best suits me. And this is where I guess that students and our staff are doing so as well. So I guess bringing that together last year, the executive saw the power of data because they had to all of a sudden turn their business model upside down and knowing what the students were studying, knowing how many people we had on campus.
And they got used to data and they saw the power of it. And our CIO came and said, how can I kind of have that data from my buildings and my entire estate? And I'd say, well, I'm working on that, but it's this great position where all these kind of value propositions that we had around smart buildings, which were, if I'm brutal, we're mostly branding before and now in demand, you know, if you said that you could help life on and you could space people out in the building and people could customize and be flexible, people would be like a case. Uh, you know, I don't have enough space, you know, I'm just renting it out anyway.
Now we've got buildings that need to re-imagine themselves. And the smart building technology that you know, we're working on is for me, the pathway there, and the demand is coming, I guess, you know, the, the business case I think is growing. So I guess I'm keen to see, can we scale this? And, you know, can we make a commercial because you know, our mission is to transition the world to renewable future.
So it's sustainable and comfy for people. So. Yeah, I would say that this is great shifting point where, we can start to do that because the real estate sector is ready for it and calling for it.
James Dice: [01:16:27] Yeah. So this audience and just the wider smart buildings community as well, there's such a focus on office buildings that people forget that like, there's this whole there's whole other industries that are being disrupted as well.
Like higher education is one and I, we can't forget how much that's being disrupted right now. Um, so that's, that's such a great point. Well, cool, Rob, this has been super fun. We talked about octopi and a bunch of other topics I didn't expect to talk about. So thanks so much for, for coming on the show and, sharing your insights.
Wonderful. Thanks for having me. It's, you know, you get down in the details so often that it's really nice to pull up every now and then, and. Remember what the whole point of it is and say it from that sort of helicopter view. So likewise, super fun. And, um, certainly thanks so much for the podcast. It's helped to shape the journey we're on.
And I look forward to the upcoming episodes as we continue on the journey. So keep up the good work is, I guess what I'm saying. Thank you.
All right, friends. Thanks for listening to this episode of the nexus podcast for more episodes like this, and to get the weekly nexus newsletter, which by the way, readers have said is the best way to stay up to date on the future of the smart building industry. Please email@example.com. You can find the show notes for this conversation there as well. Have a great day.