Transforming buildings from passive to energy generating assets

By Laurent Bataille, EVP of Digital Energy for Schneider Electric

Net Hero Podcast

As restrictions begin to lift in some countries, businesses will re-open and welcome their employees back to the workplace. It’s possible to transform office spaces into buildings of the future that generate their own clean energy, and manage spaces in a healthy, safe and energy efficient and cost-effective way. This doesn’t mean throwing out the old and replacing it with the new.  The interior of old buildings can be digitally retrofitted while preserving and improving its original design.  New cutting-edge technology, digitisation and software will be at the heart of this transformation, making whole neighbourhoods and cities smarter and more sustainable. Buildings – and companies that own and manage them – have a huge role to play in fighting climate change and protecting not just the health of the people – but also that of our planet.

The concept of smart cities has become more widely known across the globe in the last fifteen years.  As well as transforming existing buildings, brand new smart city ecosystems have been designed and built from scratch.  One example of this is Masdar City in Abu Dhabi which is a hub for research and development and offers more green and sustainable urban living and is due to be completed in 2030.  Cities have historically been more advanced than countries in moving towards autonomous and sustainable buildings in places such as Paris, Hong Kong, New York, London or Singapore.  What’s good is that software and digital technologies create the ‘second-mover advantage’.  Any urban centre can benefit from such technologies – an emerging or centuries-old one.

Why do we care if our cities are sustainable? It’s simple. Cities only cover around 3% of the Earth’s land, but they produce around 72% of its total greenhouse gas emissions.   We have to rethink how we can decarbonise our built environments, particularly when cities continue to grow so rapidly.

My belief and hope is that with the help of modern technologies self-sufficient and self-healing buildings will soon emerge, especially in “sunshine” states and countries where the renewable energy generation aspect of urbanisation is more easily imagined.  Scientists have been developing ways in which buildings could repair themselves to overcome the wear and tear over time caused by weather conditions and cracks from natural shifts in the earth. Innovative projects include Cardiff University investigating ways to use bacteria that can turn into hardened calcite to enable buildings to repair themselves. This could prove very useful for infrastructure and places that are hard to access such as tunnels and bridges.

However, before we are able to achieve this dream, all buildings must become value-adding energy generation assets, which they can already do today through microgrids, which can also feature self-healing properties.  Allowing for continuous self-assessments that inspect, analyse, react to, and automatically respond to problems, they would be able to minimise blackouts as well. This is possible through the widespread deployment of sensors and other intelligent devices and automated controls that check and evaluate the status and condition of the network to identify abnormalities and problems.

Using this information, the grid can agilely and accurately isolate network failure and react to protect the power infrastructure.  This intelligent automation allows more effective monitoring and decision making without human intervention.  The overall result is a more reliable grid that maximises uptime and increases the efficiency and security of your smart building systems.

The cutting-edge of smart buildings

What does a self-sufficient building look like? In recent years, Swire Properties decided to leverage Schneider’s Ecostruxure system to transform certain buildings within its portfolio into Smart buildings. The digital transformation of these buildings made them more energy efficient and sustainable. It also enabled the building managers to monitor the data of multiple properties across different locations. Using AI and analytics, Swire Properties can now identify actionable insights leading to further reductions in energy expenditure as well any improvements in operational performance.

Our own offices in Singapore which act as an office space and innovation hub were made into a carbon-neutral building in the middle of 2020.  It now runs on solar power during the daytime and has been equipped with around 3000 sensors allowing us to collect useful data to optimise the way space is used and to reduce its energy consumption as much as possible.

Geothermal energy as an alternative to solar and microgrids

Just last month, Scnneider was selected as one of the four winning proposals for the Helsinki Energy Challenge. The ‘Hot Heart’ concept brings 10 giant seawater basins (each measuring 225 meters in diameter) off the shores of Helsinki that act as thermal batteries and create the same effect as a tropical island. Acting as giant battery storage, the project promises to save residents 10% on their heating bills while using the power of seawater heat pumps, solar and wind energy to decarbonise the city’s district heating by 2028 and balance the grid.

Four of the hot water reservoirs are enclosed with domes and used for recreational purposes with pools and tropical forests and plants the Finns can enjoy throughout their Northern winters.

This is just one example of technology and software transforming our cities, building by building, home by home without compromising on sustainability or comfort.