David Pownall, VP services and Kas Mohammed, vice president digital energy Schneider Electric UK and Ireland look at powering sustainability and energy resilience through smart building services.

When thinking about soaring carbon emissions, petrol cars, trucks, aviation or fossil fuel power stations are arguably what most people think of as the major culprits. What’s often forgotten is the impact of buildings, which are in fact the single greatest carbon emitter worldwide. Commercial real estate accounts for approximately 40% of global carbon emissions, with the industry's entire footprint set to treble by 2060, surpassing even transportation and agriculture.

Tackling climate change means looking inside where we work, shop or access services like healthcare. Most of the built environment’s emissions come from its energy use or, more specifically, its energy waste. Fortunately, this offers us scope for rapid improvement. Of the 40% of emissions that the industry produces, as much as 90% can be addressed by retrofitting buildings with smart technologies already on the market. By installing these new tools and processes, building managers can minimise downtime, reduce operational waste, and optimise their organisations’ energy usage.

Digital decarbonisation

As of 2023, rising utility bills, volatile energy supplies, and ageing infrastructures are sparking spiralling operational costs. So, it’s no wonder that building managers are using intelligent software and services to design ‘buildings of the future’—cutting down overheads while saving the planet.

The real game-changer for this is the unprecedented visibility of a building’s energy usage and carbon footprint, made possible through digitalisation. Smart electrical systems can measure the energy consumption of components like power receptacles (plugs in walls), lighting systems, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Then, they can analyse and track a building’s efficiency performance against pre-defined sustainability targets, highlighting areas for improvement and enabling transparent ESG stakeholder reporting.

Some of the greatest opportunities to boost sustainability lie within industrial facilities. Global production sectors are responsible for one-fifth of carbon emissions, consuming over half (54%) of the world’s energy sources. So, industry must automate its machinery and monitor its manufacturing processes to ensure energy usage is measured, managed, and minimised.

Retrofitting for sustainability

The process of power digitalisation begins with the installation of smart devices throughout a building. Wireless thermal sensors, intelligent power protection devices (controllers, relays, and trip units), correction devices (that help to address power factor, voltage imbalance, and harmonics), and monitoring devices (like power quality meters and energy meters) are the building blocks of an effective smart building electrical system.

Then, integrated energy and power management system (EPMS) software collects energy consumption, power event, and electrical asset performance data to help streamline and automate system management. Building operators also enjoy far clearer visibility of behavioural trends and anomalies, pre-empting maintenance and minimising the risk of failures, downtime, and even fines.

The rise of smart buildings has transformed the management and efficiency of electrical systems. Greater connection and data intelligence enables optimised energy usage by highlighting when, where, and why waste is occurring.

Take leading US-based glass manufacturer, Guardian Glass, which faced monthly penalties due to its failing capacitor banks. Installing a range of smart building solutions enabled the company’s building managers to measure, in real time, the performance of the capacitors. And ever since, Guardian Glass has avoided hundreds of thousands of dollars in utility surcharges.

A switch in time

However, closer connectivity also means that a malfunction can have a significant impact, perhaps in another nearby building on the same campus. Even these advanced systems can’t always prevent voltage fluctuations, short circuits, and harmonics (power distortions) from causing network disturbances—bringing blackouts and brownouts that disrupt a wider business’s profitability.

The risk of equipment breakdowns is reduced when analytics software is combined with artificial intelligence and remote services expertise. These modern systems are evolving to become more autonomous and resilient. Just like self-driving cars that can safely perform parallel parking, electrical self-diagnosis and self-repair models are freeing humans from tough onsite monitoring and maintenance duties.

By connecting sensor-equipped assets to the cloud, building managers can spot behavioural patterns and anomalies and make ultra-informed decisions on how to optimise asset performance. For example, continuous thermal monitoring can identify developing hotspots and alert repair services before it provokes unanticipated downtime.

For next-level support, building managers can also engage remote experts based in a virtual connected services hub. Not only does this bring access to 24/7 external monitoring, alerts, and support, but also a huge data lake of global equipment performance statistics for real-world, evidence-based guidance through similar issues.

Maximising machinery uptime

Digital management technologies can even help to reduce physical waste and pollution. By reviewing performance, and predicting optimal repair and refurbishment cycles, the software helps businesses to extend the productive capabilities and lifetimes of tools and machinery, while curbing failures and downtime. This condition-based maintenance boosts both operational and energy efficiency via optimised material usage, slashing organisations’ carbon footprints further.

A recent real-world example is Nestlé Nescafé. The coffee production heavyweight recently installed smart technologies that use artificial intelligence and analytics to monitor equipment and predict system failures. By implementing power system monitoring and control across 80% of its global facilities, the company estimates it will cut maintenance costs by 5% and raise equipment performance by as much as 7%. Nestlé also expects this approach will reduce its 2023 manufacturing energy consumption by 5%—enabling the company to simultaneously accelerate its resilience, cost-efficiency, and sustainability measures.

If not now, then when?

If humanity is to safely navigate its toughest challenge yet, buildings—and their managers—are set to play an increasingly crucial role. The tools we need to power energy resilience and sustainability are already available. The question now is, do we have the will to act?