Green Business Keen on Green Tech and Automation

November 14, 2012
Lit Car

Building automation and the cool-looking all-electric Lit Car, due in production in 2014, are among disruptive green technologies that can (ahem) drive energy efficiency.

It’s a record: I heard the word “automation” more times Tuesday than any other day EVER. You’d think I was at a high-end custom electronics show.

Nope. I was at a green and sustainability conference.

Let’s allow that to sink in for a moment. Green … sustainability … automation technology … green people liking automation technology. Ahhh.

Specifically, I was at the GreenBiz Verge conference that preceded the big Greenbuild show in San Francisco. These green business people have become very, very serious about green technology – especially automation.

The Verge conference covered all kinds of disruptive sustainability issues, from transportation innovations like the Lit “car” pictured above to ways to drive sustainability in cities. It’s definitely geared to the green business crowd, largely those selling green services to commercial, institutional and government entities. But now the big business of green is particularly keen on green tech.

GreenBiz chairman and executive editor Joel Makower perhaps said it best in a talk session with cradle-to-cradle green guru William McDonough, when he posited technology being used to evoke change. And when they talk about “change” at these green conferences, they’re talking about the challenges of creating better sustainability and energy efficiency throughout our society. That’s a tall order.

The Role of Automation

“Automation is the key,” said Kyle McNamara, managing principal of Verizon’s Global Energy and Utilities Practice, in a session on “The Promise of Demand Response” for smart-grid programs offered by electric utilities. That means for utilities to be able to turn down or turn off energy-intensive systems in businesses and appliances in homes to reduce peak energy loads during demand response events, some automation inside the business or home is critical to making it happen.

Robert W. Wilkins, vice president of public affairs for cooling and mechanical systems company Danfoss, cited green tech systems such as refrigerators that can shift their defrost cycles, dishwashers than can delay cycles, variable-speed air conditioners and variable frequency drivers that improve pump efficiency, as just a few green tech systems that can automate better efficiencies. Some of these systems can be used in homes and businesses, regardless of connections to smart grid services. And as Wilkins concludes, “A holistic approach [meaning tying it all together] is needed.”

Verizon, says McNamara, would like to integrate its FiOS Internet box with two-way communicating smart meters, enabling it to eliminate an energy monitor it offers as part of its Verizon Home Monitoring and Control system that company has been rolling out.

Then there are the big guys like building automation system giant Johnson Controls, whose new Panoptix System was developed to help building managers more easily access and manage the data they’re getting, and putting it into useful form. This speaks volumes to a wide and emerging market of building managers and owners who are new to such building automation technologies.

“In the last few years we’ve seen open-mindedness [among building owners] of using the technology really accelerate,” said Johnson Control’s Laura Farnham, vice president of Building Technologies and Services.

Hurdles to Clear

There are obstacles still, from the capital available to invest in building management and automation systems, to overcoming the initial cost versus the life-cycle cost mentality, to long-term  tax depreciations that discourage investment in efficiency systems, to low electric rates in many parts of the United States (though the latter is likely to change.)

And the key will be automation, whether the platform is in a home or business or big business. There’s that word again.

Says Verizon’s McNamara: “Not a lot of companies can get into controls and do it well across platforms, and the first company to do that is going to break it wide open.”

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