Talking Green - Energy Management Systems

Building Controls Gives Your Building a Brain

This article was original published for the Talkin’ Green column in the Lake Geneva Regional News Real Estate Guide. Download a copy of the column from the Lake Geneva Regional News Real Estate Guide.


Commercial and multifamily residential buildings represent the largest consumers of electricity in the United States, using nearly two-thirds of all electricity produced. It makes sense that property owners and managers would look for ways to reduce their energy costs as well as their environmental impact with improvements like lighting retrofits, variable frequency drives and HVAC systems. These investments were usually purchased and managed separately,  but now all of these standalone improvements can be integrated and be coordinated through an Energy Management System (EMS) that can optimize the efficiency of an entire buildings’ energy consumption.

Energy Management System

EMS is a software-based communication and control system for your building. It’s like a central nervous system and brain for your building – continually learning and adapting as its knowledge grows about the building’s systems and the user’s preferences. It monitors the lighting and adjusts it according to occupancy, outdoor day lighting and general lighting energy consumption. Indoor and outdoor temperature levels are monitored to reduce energy consumption while optimizing comfort. Each morning, the hot water boilers fire up to prepare for the demand for hot water. The brain of the system coordinates the incoming data and manages the entire building.

How it Works

As cold water enters the building to replace the water being used in bathroom showers, toilets and sinks, the EMS recognizes a cooling opportunity from the 50 degree lake water flowing through the plate and frame heat exchanger and reduces the speed of the fans and the energy being consumed at the cooling tower and compressors. As the cooling opportunity passes, the EMS recognizes the rising temperature outside, and simultaneously checks the indoor temperatures of the common areas in order to maintain the comfort needs of the residents. As the sun rises and the temperature warms, the chiller is told to increase its output to keep the building cool.

At the same time, the EMS reduces the energy being consumed by the building’s lighting as it harvests day lighting. But saving money, reducing energy consumption, and lowering your carbon footprint is only the beginning for an EMS system. It can also turn your building into a virtual power plant while earning you income through Demand Response (DR).

Demand Response

Basically, Demand Response is an arrangement from the Electric Utility which pays customers to reduce or curtail their energy usage at certain times of the day when the demand from everyone else is straining the grid. So, just as the power company gets paid when you turn on the lights, you can get paid when you turn them off during the “curtailment period”. Even better, the EMS in your building can automate your demand response opportunity and even interface with the curtailment specialist.

In most cases, the actual curtailment is unnoticeable and doesn’t affect the personal lifestyle of the people in the building. In fact, the residents or employees will be more adversely affected by sudden brownouts and blackouts by the utility than their curtailment period. Nationally, DR is being recognized as a crucial component of a balanced power grid and a much cheaper alternative to expanding transmission lines and building power plants to handle those peaks that would only run 7 hours per year.

Here are a few examples of Demand Response during the “curtailment periods” and you can choose which is best for your particular building:

  • Raise the thermostat in the summer or lower the thermostat in the winter by several degrees in the lobby during curtailment periods.
  • Dim or turn off non-essential lights.
  • Turn off fans, decorative fountains, and other non-essential loads.
  • If you have 2 or more elevator banks, shut one off during the curtailment period if possible.
  • Turn on a standby generator

Automating with Your EMS

Contracting with a Demand Response company allows you to earn money three ways:

  1. Emergency Curtailment: you usually have 1.5 hours advance warning of an event. The number of events per year are limited and could last up to 8 hours. However some utilities have not called an event for years. Once per year, your building is tested to verify the amount of the load that you can reduce. You then get paid for providing the capacity to help even if no event happens.
  2. Economic: bidding your load drop – RTO (regional transmission operator) considers dropping 100kw in load to be the same as turning on a 100kw generator. This means you can bid your load drop as a supply resource and make money when the real-time price of electricity is high.
  3. Ancillary or Spinning Reserves: is the reserve capacity that is ready to meet electric frequency stabilization within minutes of a dispatch instruction by your RTO. Literally, the generators are spinning at a slow speed wasting energy but already synchronized with the grid to be able to react in an emergency within 10 minutes.

Not all utilities have DR Programs so check with your utility, but giving your building a brain with an EMS can put your building in control of your energy future and your bottom line.

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Fritz Kreiss

Fritz has been involved in energy procurement and the field of sustainability for close to twenty years, with expertise in alternative energy development including geothermal, wind and solar farm developments.

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