Nexus #19 (4/21/2020)

Evaluating new smart building tech, an update on VOLTTRON, and a trillion-dollar opportunity

We estimate that flexible customer-sited resources (electric vehicles, thermostats, batteries, smart water heaters, etc.) could shift up to 30% of peak electricity demand in five years — but getting them to actually do so will be the hardest and most rewarding challenge.

—Shayle Kann

Happy Tuesday! Here’s an outline of this week’s newsletter:

  1. 🔍Deep Dive: Evaluating Smart Building Tech🔎

  2. 🤔 On my mind this week

  3. 👩‍💻 The latest LinkedIn discussion

  4. 🧰 What’s new with VOLTTRON?

  5. 🔌 My thoughts on the trillion-dollar opportunity in grid decarbonization


Disclaimer: James is a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). All opinions expressed via Nexus emails, podcasts, or on the website belong solely to James. No resources from NREL are used to support Nexus. NREL does not endorse or support any aspect of Nexus.


1. 🔍 Deep Dive: Evaluating Smart Building Tech 🔎

In case you missed last week’s announcement of the Nexus Pro membership, here’s the short version:

  • It starts in May

  • Nexus Pro members get weekly deep dives, exclusive community access, and access to the Nexus Vendor Landscape

  • If you sign up for Nexus Pro by April 30th, you lock in the early adopter’s discount:

Get 20% off forever

That third membership perk, the Nexus Vendor Landscape, is already live for you early adopters. For those of you who don’t have time to keep up with the vendors in this marketplace, this will be worth the price of membership on its own.

For a preview, I wrote the latest (free) Deep Dive on how I evaluate new smart building technology and how the Nexus Vendor Landscape will evolve over time. As an example, I demonstrated how I evaluated startup BrainBox AI in under 5 minutes. Check it out:

🔍 Deep Dive: How to evaluate smart building technology 🔎

Also, hat tip to Nexus Pro member Hendrik Van Hemert, who suggested several companies I hadn’t heard of. They’re all now in the Vendor Landscape. Thanks Hendrik!

2. 🤔 On my mind this week

Like all of you, I’m continuing to track the impact of COVID-19 on our industry. Just like I did in the first Nexus Deep Dive, I’ll continue to share my thoughts here as I have them. If you’re looking for the signal in the noise, here’s the best COVID-19 content I’ve seen this week:

  1. David Schurk on Filtration Effectiveness and his updated whitepaper on HVAC’s role in environmental infection control (LinkedIn)

  2. The importance of including energy efficiency in every stimulus investment (IEA)

  3. Using occupancy analytics to return to the office safely (Density) and Memoori’s recent post on the same theme

  4. Preventing COVID-19 spread in buildings (CIBSE Journal; guidance seems to differ on whether humidification matters)

  5. The International WELL Building Institute’s COVID-19 task force is creating a checklist for ensuring buildings have taken all necessary precautions before allowing people to return safely (IWBI)

  6. Your building can make you sick or keep you well (New York Times)

(Last week, there was a link to a piece by McKinstry. Their blog was down, so I apologize if the link didn’t work. At the time of writing this, it’s back up.)

Besides a small mention in the McKinstry piece, I haven’t seen adequate coverage of what I’ll call the Energy/Ventilation nexus. While the benefits of ventilation during a pandemic are clear, it’s also the #1 way to increase energy consumption. This tradeoff should be considered as we move into our new reality.

As usual, please add any signals you’ve seen to the comments.

In other news:

  • I’ve been having so much fun with the Nexus Book Club. There are 6 of us spanning 3 different countries and 7 time zones and we like to nerd out over Zoom each week. Do you want to join the group? We’d love to have you… We are two weeks away from starting our next book: Data Science. Hit reply or email me at james.w.dice@gmail.com to join.

  • Check out Nexus podcast episode 3 with Nick Gayewski, CEO of KGS Buildings. I loved this conversation on scaling analytics and the 5 waves of use cases for smart building tech.


3. 👩‍💻The latest LinkedIn discussion

Is there room for more smart building startups? Or is the market saturated?

What do you think?

Join the discussion


4. 🧰 What’s new with VOLTTRON?

+ An Updated Overview of the Open Source VOLTTRON Platform—I’m helping with an upcoming project that includes the open-source, independent data layer platform VOLTTRON in the stack.

I haven’t kept up with VOLTTRON’s development over the last few years, so I thought this February article on Automated Buildings was great. And if you’re looking for an intro to VOLTTRON, I recommend this one and this one too.

Here’s a great metaphor from Brad White describing what the platform means to his energy and controls consulting business:

One of the many metaphors that describes what they can do and have done though is this: they have presented a cake without icing, on a silver platter. Several commercial service providers, consultants and integrators alike (ourselves included), have started to use VOLTTRON to support our service offerings, the icing if you will.

In our case, as building optimization consultants, this data is giving us greater insights into the opportunities that exist to make buildings work better. Beyond our home-grown analysis, VOLTTRON can help make the data accessible to 3rd parties who will provide their own software solutions, whether it be AFDD, optimization, or something else yet to be invented. The possibilities are limitless.

This most recent article describes how more and more icing is getting added to the cake. Third-party vendors can always add their apps (icing) on top of the VOLTTRON cake, but some amazing open-source apps are also being created by the community.

I’m particularly struck by how well VOLTTRON is suited for helping with Grid-Interactive Efficient Building (GEB) strategies. Here’s PNNL’s George Hernandez outlining one of the open-source apps:

One of the VOLTTRON Apps -- Intelligent Load Control (ILC) -- is an algorithm that can actively manage loads while also considering (and valuing) constraints for those loads, like an occupant’s comfort, a manufacturer’s recommended runtime, occupancy load, etc. In this example, to manage to comfort constraints, the ILC algorithm can dynamically prioritize the available HVAC related loads for curtailment using both quantitative rules (e.g. deviation of zone conditions from set point) and qualitative rules (e.g. type of zone) in a building.

The applications for this type of V-Agent are very broad and can include most any type of device, either energy-consuming or energy-generating, for most any kind of load management requirement allowing the shape of the building load to be dynamically controlled, governed, or altered. These applications include Demand Response, Demand Limiting, Ancillary Services, and can include electricity ramping to match generation. VOLTTRON allows us to explore building utilization to the utilities beyond traditional demand response. For example, this ILC algorithm uses analytic hierarchy process (AHP) to prioritize loads for curtailment.


5. 🔌 Load flexibility is a solution to the inevitable “grid weirding”

+ The trillion-dollar opportunity in grid decarbonization (Medium)—Cleantech investor Shayle Kann breaks down what will happen to the electric grid as wind and solar resources grow from 11% of generation to meet carbon reduction goals set by governments and corporations. He mentions grid flexibility as a solution to the inevitable “grid weirding”:

Assuming this decarbonization is achieved primarily through wind and solar*, we would face an enormous amount of what I call “grid weirding” — higher volatility in electricity prices, periods of negative pricing/curtailment, fast-ramping load requirements, seasonal swings, high weather-driven variability, etc. Each of these bits of weirding will be a challenge that requires further investment in grid flexibility resources — energy storage, demand flexibility, and flexible zero-carbon generation.

After reading this section, I had big hopes for the rest of the article. I was hoping he would outline some ideas or strategies to overcome what I’m seeing as the two big challenges for grid flexibility in the commercial buildings sector, a movement that is being called Grid-interactive Efficient Buildings (GEB):

  1. GEB technologies are receiving investment, but are not ready for primetime

  2. Building owners don’t yet have the financial incentive to invest in these technologies—what’s the business case?

Shayle does echo #2 as a challenge:

Scalable ways to monetize demand flexibility while maintaining a delightful customer experience. We estimate that flexible customer-sited resources (electric vehicles, thermostats, batteries, smart water heaters, etc.) could shift up to 30% of peak electricity demand in five years — but getting them to actually do so will be the hardest and most rewarding challenge.

For example, real-time price signals from the utility should be rewarding building owners for their investments in GEB. Until that is part of the equation, it will be tough for the owner to see a return.

For Nexus readers, this challenge represents an opportunity. How are you looking at GEB in your buildings and with your clients?


OK, that’s all for this week—thanks for reading Nexus!

If you have thoughts on this week’s edition, let us know in the comments.

And don’t forget about the Nexus Pro early adopter discount:

Get 20% off forever