Maximising the smart-grid concept – via intelligent energy management


By Jeff Sobieski, COO, Telkonet, Inc.

With electricity demand conservatively estimated to double by 2050, the drive to implement energy reduction initiatives is becoming increasingly urgent, as we focus on managing growing demand, particularly against a background of rising prices. The levels of avoidable energy waste remain surprisingly high, and one area where immediate action can deliver results is the heating and cooling of unoccupied rooms in buildings, particularly in cases of older properties equipped with inefficient HVAC systems. In the hotel industry, for example, rooms are typically unoccupied for around 60% of the time, resulting in huge amounts of energy being consumed in heating or cooling a room for no practical purpose. Dormitories and classrooms cost the education sector a small fortune during vacation periods, as facility managers are forced to balance diametrically opposing requirements to conserve energy versus maintain buildings. While considerable progress is being made to heighten awareness and encourage green energy policies, there remain a myriad of small and surprisingly basic steps that could make a tangible difference, particularly with regard to the deployment of smart energy management (EM).

Looking further into the future, the concept of the SmartGrid will increasingly hold a pivotal central position, as we start to see it gain clear traction. The progress may be gradual, but there are real signs of technology joining up to deliver results. The idea of turning a nation’s electrical grid into a Smart Grid involves creating a two-way reporting and management infrastructure, using an Internet Protocol (IP) network to link up legacy and new hardware and create a dynamic central facility for monitoring all the way through the energy chain. At the heart of the SmartGrid would be the ability for a utility to monitor from generation through transmission, substation, storage and energy usage, receiving real-time feedback from every point on the grid and therefore proactively monitoring, fixing and transferring power as required. So how does this advanced thinking relate to the inherently simple concept of reducing energy consumption in unoccupied rooms?

Energy Management en-route to the SmartGrid – in Hospitality
Using the hospitality sector example, there is a common thread that illustrates the challenge. Hotels are frequently equipped with the lowest-cost HVAC available, as a direct result of the build strategy being focused on cost rather than operational efficiency. However, the lowest-cost system can frequently represent the highest operational cost in terms of energy consumption. In North America, hoteliers are being encouraged to start their green initiatives with a simple step that can deliver large and immediate savings – the American Lodging and Hotel Association (AH&LA) recommends that the important first step is to install an occupancy-based HVAC solution.

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A diagram of a typical “smart room”

A typical small to medium-sized hotel will generally have PTAC units in each room. Depending on the age of these units, they may work directly with an intelligent thermostat or require additional equipment. The latest guest room energy management systems adopt intelligent energy control, with solutions typically comprising a thermostat, occupancy sensor and potentially a door contact. There is a range of options for detecting occupancy – from passive infrared detection, motion detection and door contacts, as well as using the light level of the room to determine whether it is day or night. Key card systems work in a similar fashion to door contact solutions, locking a system into the occupied state if the key is inserted into a key card slot, albeit at an environmentally unfriendly price via the accumulation of disposable cards. Recent experience has shown that the optimum results are achieved by putting the system intelligence within the room thermostat – using room occupancy to trigger the optimum energy-saving settings.

System intelligence plays an important central role. The latest EM systems deploy in-room occupancy detection as opposed to time-based programming methods. Temperature set-points can be adapted for periods when rooms are unoccupied, with the intelligent thermostat bringing the temperature rapidly back to guests’ preferred settings when they return to the room. Reliable, stable communications typically link a room-occupancy sensor and an intelligent thermostat, with the intelligent EM system processing a variety of different factors – such as the weather, and the age of the heating or cooling system. The upshot is that guests enjoy comfortable room temperatures, while the hotel significantly reduces its KWh consumption, realising typical savings of around 30%. Additionally, hotel management has access to a wide range of very detailed data on system runtime, occupancy and temperature change, enabling them to analyse and fine-tune their system for greater operational efficiency.

A property’s central communications platform represents the pivotal core for integrating the overall energy management process, using facilities already available to create the backbone at the individual property level, en route to realising the ultimate SmartGrid infrastructure. A centralised, unified Internet Protocol communications backbone can provide the basis for a diversity of applications – from High Speed Internet Access (HSIA), HVAC and lighting control, through to Property Management Systems and full-scale building automation. By using a Softwareas- a-Service model, you can achieve fully comprehensive end-to-end monitoring, management and reporting, across a variety of different systems. Proven powerline communications technology (PLC) can deliver a cost-effective, rapid-deployment communications platform, using a property’s existing electrical wiring as the distribution medium. The addition of an industrystandard open communications technology, such as ZigBee (, as the mesh architecture for device-to-device control of a variety of equipment, makes it possible to create a fully integrated infrastructure that enables environmentally conscious and green-aware property management.

This type of EM strategy also offers an important reverseview approach – from the utilities’ perspective. The use of control profiles within intelligent EM systems provides the utilities with the option of requesting and executing load shed calls, helping the process of controlling energy utilisation across the grid. This feeds into the benefit programme of reducing customer spend on energy, as well as diminishing the need to create new power generation facilities.

There is clearly considerable benefit in implementing existing technologies right now at the property level, en route to the realisation of a fully functional SmartGrid. There are a multitude of initiatives focused on achieving greater control and measurement for reporting purposes, designed to overcome some of the current problems involved in identifying the real savings of a given EM initiative. For example, a building may be equipped with a number of different HVAC systems and PTAC units, making it difficult to assess the impact of a new EM system. What happens at room level can without doubt impact a building’s overall efficiency, requiring careful monitoring via efficient interfaces between the different system elements. This is specifically where new technology for data communication such as ZigBee, can deliver enhanced interoperability, enabling devices to talk to one another and providing more recordable data. The market is also witnessing considerable activity with regard to new cross-platform projects, involving players from different product sectors partnering to create new-generation smart refrigerators, water heaters, lighting and HVAC control. The essence of these moves is that the availability of smart meters and the utilisation of standards such as the ZigBee Smart Energy Profile, is giving vendors access to more data, more easily. This is the important first step.

Building Automation: Enabling Greater Efficiency
Building automation networks are developing rapidly, offering the capability of integrating every facet of a building’s services and facilities, from heating and lighting, to in-room entertainment services. Central to this evolution is the adoption of common, open standards and system protocols, ensuring genuine systems interoperability and a future-proofed evolution path via software and firmware upgrades. In terms of communication protocols, BACnet – a building automation and control networking protocol – is establishing itself as the dominant platform, enabling computerised building automation devices to exchange information. Designed specifically for applications such as heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting and access control, BACnet is a nonproprietary open protocol communication standard. By using this as the backbone communication protocol, and enabling devices to communicate irrespective of the function they perform, the door opens for the next phase of interoperability. The utilities are leading the charge against the idea of the closed proprietary solution, helping to ensure user choice through widespread product availability. This is in turn helping to create growing momentum for new devices that communicate over BACnet, via transport mechanisms such as ZigBee. In the smart energy stakes, one example involves linking smart meters and intelligent thermostats, providing the means to monitor and control EM performance based on actual energy consumption data.

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A simple energy network

The Role of the Individual in Cutting Energy Consumption
From an individual user perspective, visibility of how much energy is consumed provides a conscious means of reducing the consumer’s carbon footprint. As a customer interface, the intelligent thermostat can be used to give the customer choices by displaying real-time information, such as saving energy by reducing the room temperature by a degree or two. Extrapolated further, if remote options for curtailment can be displayed on the thermostat, it can become a central resource for automating a range of services – such as lighting and HVAC. This enables the individual to share in reducing the load demand for specific energy-consuming activities, such as heating and lighting. Within the SmartGrid, this could be extended to other domestic services, enabling a new level of communication between the utility and the consumer, to aid energy conservation. There is strong potential that major telecom and cable providers will also adopt the SmartGrid concept, as being in tune with the idea of the “connected” home. This is an obvious strategic market opportunity and a natural fit, particularly as more and more intelligence is delivered within the residential space, increasing bandwidth demands between the home and the utility.

A well-conceived overall network infrastructure will without doubt aid energy efficient operation and effective energy management. As illustrated, there are reliable technologies already in existence that can deliver, as evidenced by powerline communications technology and wireless networks, operating under a mesh network architecture. There is without doubt a wealth of different initiatives emerging in the quest to control energy more wisely. A fundamentally important consideration, however, is the need to take individual and collective action – starting with the smallest actions, such as eliminating energy wasting at a room-by-room level, through to implementing fully integrated and automated building systems to control overall consumption. Every contribution will count in the challenging times ahead, as we attempt to find new ways to curb our monstrous appetite for energy. The SmartGrid offers enormous potential, but its full realisation remains in the longer term future. The imperative is to take tangible steps now that can start to make a difference.