Leveraging Climate Technology for Commercial Energy Efficiency

October 2023

Drawing upon decades of expertise in designing and optimising HVAC systems for the commercial built environment, our Managing Director, Tom Ascough, examines three key challenges facing the industry and explores the innovations that will solve them

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In the ever-evolving landscape of sustainability and energy efficiency, leveraging cutting-edge climate technology has become imperative. In this article, we explore how these innovations are helping the built environment to overcome three critical challenges in energy performance.

Leveraging Climate Tech to Overcome Three Key Energy Performance Challenges

Commercial buildings play an essential role in our daily lives. Whether it’s for work or leisure, we tend to spend a great deal of our lives in them. However, they also significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), with a large portion of these emissions stemming from energy demand. HVAC systems, a prominent energy consumer, account for up to 50% of a commercial buildings' total emissions.

With this in mind, new legislation has been introduced to try and tackle the impact of commercial buildings on the environment. The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) mandates that public buildings achieve zero-emission status by 2028, with all new constructions following suit by 2030. Additionally, the directive requires new buildings to approach nearly zero-energy building (NZEB) status.

In the near future, energy performance indicators for buildings will transition from being mere guidelines to compulsory requirements. While this legislation is a positive step towards sustainability, many buildings risk becoming stranded assets, at risk of early obsolescence, because they don’t meet the regulatory targets. As things stand, approximately 75% of the EU's building stock currently falls short of performance standards.

The reality is that without addressing performance head-on, a lot of commercial buildings are at risk. Why are these performance targets proving so difficult to achieve? In my experience, it is because much of the industry is struggling to solve three key challenges:

1. The energy performance gap
2. Year-round cooling demand
3. Ventilation wellness requirements

In my role as Managing Director of Symphony Energy, my team and I have been looking at these problems long before ESG and the pressure of high energy prices put them under the spotlight. These challenges can be addressed, but only by integrating specialist knowledge in HVAC engineering design with advanced climate tech and programming. 

Let’s break down each challenge and explore actionable climate tech strategies to overcome them.

1. The Energy Performance Gap

There is often a significant difference between a building's expected performance at the design stage and its actual performance post-construction. This gap arises when the design philosophy of the building and the operational strategy of the HVAC system aren't fully aligned. Remarkably, optimising the HVAC system could potentially reduce a building's total energy consumption by up to 50%.

Even though a building may be designed to high standards, its efficiency often diminishes with everyday use with common reasons for this including:

  • Equipment or technology not operating as intended
  • Building design that fails to consider certain climatic factors
  • Lack of a comprehensive overview of the building's energy usage and output
  • Inefficient demand management

As legislative requirements for energy performance tighten, building owners and managers must pinpoint the sources of these gaps and devise strategies to address them.

The Strategy: Fine-Tuning Your HVAC System

Understanding the entire ecosystem of your building is essential to identify the inefficiencies causing the performance gap. It is essential to take a deep dive into the unique characteristics of your building to create a detailed environmental blueprint. This is where you will learn where the inefficiencies that are causing the performance gap lie. At a minimum, you’ll need to look at your building physics and HVAC design as well as BMS, weather forecasting and usage data points. 

From this blueprint, it is possible to create a comprehensive virtual model—a digital twin—of your building that accurately mirrors its current operation.

The digital twin of your building serves as a dynamic tool for detailed evaluation. Your building can be assessed, tested, and optimised in a sandbox environment where performance algorithms can fine-tune your building’s HVAC system, optimising it to function at its most efficient level. 

When integrated with your Building Management System (BMS), advanced automation technologies can be introduced to continuously predict, monitor, and respond to real-time fluctuations in energy demand. This proactive approach ensures sustained energy efficiency while maintaining all important comfort levels for your occupants.

Taking this digital approach to optimisation is the most effective way to retrofit an existing building. The result is that smart data is turned into smarter actions, leading to an optimised HVAC system and a significantly reduced (or potentially eliminated) performance gap. 

2. Year-round Cooling Demand 

Modern commercial buildings often require cooling throughout the year, regardless of the season. This is due to a combination of factors: humans generating body heat, computers and lights emitting processing heat, compounded by high levels of insulation typically used in contemporary construction. As a result, many commercial spaces run the risk of overheating in winter without sufficient cooling.

This persistent need for cooling, coupled with stringent energy performance regulations, presents a considerable challenge for building owners and managers. Maintaining comfortable indoor spaces while also meeting legislative energy performance standards can feel like a perpetual tightrope walk.

The Strategy: Recycle Waste Heat into Usable Energy

All buildings inevitably produce waste heat through their HVAC systems which typically gets expelled into the atmosphere. Overlooking this freely available resource is a significant missed opportunity for energy efficiency. By harnessing this waste heat, we can substantially decrease your overall energy demand and carbon emissions.

In 2021, Symphony Energy introduced a game-changing technology that empowers building owners to recycle and reuse their waste heat, generating free cooling for the building. Imagine a solution where you can cool your building for free during warmer periods, and drastically reduce your heating load when the temperature drops. 

We named this transformative technology Symphony Cycle, and it has been a cornerstone of our commercial optimisation projects ever since.

As the industry grapples with future challenges, notably keeping buildings cool within legislated energy performance levels, Symphony Cycle offers a unique solution. As of now, we stand alone as the sole provider of this innovative response to a pressing industry challenge.

3. Meeting Ventilation Wellness Requirements 

Commercial buildings need to meet specific ventilation wellness requirements. At the foundational level, this means that a certain amount of air must circulate through a defined space within a specific timeframe. Currently, the requirements are more akin to guidelines, but they are soon expected to evolve into compulsory standards covering not just C02 levels but factors such as TVOC (Total Volatile Organic Compound) and PM (Particulate Matter).

The local environment will need to be both measured and controlled to ensure healthy IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) conditions. Accommodating the high volume of air circulation that most commercial buildings will require in order to meet these conditions is going to demand a lot of energy and, as a consequence, expense. 

The Strategy: Localised Dynamic Demand Ventilation

The conflict of interests between ventilation wellness and energy optimisation could reach an impasse unless a more effective approach than the current industry thinking is introduced. This is where Localised Dynamic Demand Ventilation comes in. It can be achieved by installing smart sensor-controllers throughout your building, providing real-time insights into its ventilation needs and responding accordingly by controlling the local plant. 

For example, on a floor with multiple rooms, only one might require ventilation, negating the need to ventilate the entire floor. Smart sensor-controllers monitor the internal environment of all the rooms and automatically adjust the ventilation only where it's needed based on pre-set criteria. Align your criteria to wellness standards and you’ll never have any problems.

How does this solve the problem of increased energy expenditure? By using smart sensor-controllers to focus your ventilation control to its most local level, you’re diagnosing an issue and using a scalpel (rather than an axe) to fix it. Without localised dynamic control, you would otherwise have to ventilate your entire floor just to respond to a need which may only occur in one room.

Symphony Welltech is our response to this challenge. To-date it stands alone as the most complete sensor-controller on the market offering a highly efficient, autonomous solution to a real problem for the industry. As it can operate without being wired into the BMS, it is the perfect tool for a retrofit project. 

Putting it all together at 1 Cumberland Place

Not only do these climate tech strategies solve real challenges, but when combined they can have an enormous impact on the energy efficiency of a building. 

As a recent example, we worked on the 11,984 sq.m 1 Cumberland Place building in Dublin. Despite earning LEED Platinum status in 2018, the forward-thinking building owners, Hibernia REG, and its occupant, Twitter, sought to explore the extent to which their HVAC energy could be further optimised.

By fine-tuning their HVAC system with custom algorithms, implementing Symphony Cycle to recycle waste heat, and deploying Symphony Welltech to provide localised ventilation on demand, we substantially improved energy efficiency.
The results speak for themselves as we successfully reduced the HVAC energy demand by 76%.

See the full case study here.

Written By:

Tom Ascough