The IoT is enabling buildings to reduce energy consumption & emissions

8th August 2022
Kiera Sowery

Our buildings need to get greener, and that means they need to get smarter. Asem Elshimi, Product Marketing Manager, Silicon Labs discusses where IoT and smart buildings can reduce emissions.

Reducing buildings’ energy consumption is essential to meet global climate goals. According to the UN Environment Program (UNEP), buildings are responsible for as much as 38% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, when the construction industry is included. To get on track for buildings to be net zero carbon by 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says we need building CO2 emissions to halve by 2030.

In Europe, buildings are the single largest energy consumer, and account for 40% of the EU’s energy consumption. The EU has put in place legislation that aims for zero emissions from our buildings by 2050, with milestones set along the way for 2030 and 2040. This includes modernising existing buildings, as well as new additions.

One of the major ways to meet these demands will be smart buildings, which leverage the internet of things (IoT) to manage assets, resources, and services efficiently. This improves building operations and resource management, reducing energy consumption as well as making buildings safer, more productive, and overall a better place in which to live or work. Smart buildings incorporate IoT technology into many areas – from digitising people flow and space utilization, to reconstructing water supply networks.

There is an increasing demand for smart building technology, and the smart buildings market is predicted to grow from $72.6bn in 2021 to $121.6bn by 2026. This is being driven by a global need for increased sustainability, decreased waste, and efficient use of resources in buildings.

Let’s look at two of the main areas where the IoT and smart buildings can help reduce emissions: heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), and energy distribution systems.

Smart HVAC

Smart HVAC systems can make a big difference to energy efficiency, air quality and resident comfort. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven major developments in air quality and purification technologies. There is also an increase in customer and consumer expectation of an individualized experience; residents now expect granular control of HVAC settings in every room and zone in their buildings.

This is where the IoT can add a new depth to the comfort experienced by residents inside the buildings. With motorised vents and dampers, paired with wireless connectivity to phones and tablets, residents can set the temperature as well as the CO2, humidity and air quality settings with a few swipes on their building interface app. Building managers can also use IoT connectivity to automatically detect room occupancy and reduce energy usage to that space accordingly, optimizing energy use throughout the building.

The potential savings from effective use of the IoT in HVAC are enormous. In the EU, heating and hot water account for 79% of total energy use in the home, while in industry 70% of energy consumption is for heating. Cooling and air conditioning are relatively small energy users, accounting for 2.7% in industry, but are much more significant in other countries and regions, for example in the US.

Smart energy distribution

Traditional energy distribution systems are a one-way street: energy flows from generators into the loads where it is needed. In these systems, a power plant would generate electricity, and it would be distributed to the buildings where it will be used.

With renewable energy sources like solar and wind, it’s completely different – energy distribution systems must now allow for omni-directional energy flow. For example, a building that previously only consumed energy could now add rooftop solar panels. As well as meeting much of the building’s own needs for electricity, the solar panels can return excess power to the distribution network. 

Smart energy distribution systems enable this omni-directional energy flow, and allow the integration of renewable sources to deposit energy back into the power grid. This avoids wasting extra electricity from solar or wind sources, where they are generating more than the local user needs at any particular moment. It also provides a financial benefit for the building generating the excess power, which it literally sells back to its electricity provider.

In practice, the smart building technology needed for this distributed energy generation model is similar to that required for other applications. The building needs sensors to measure the power being generated, as well as monitoring the electricity demand from minute to minute. Then, wireless IoT technologies enable this data to be shared with the building’s management systems, where it can be analyzed and used to automatically trigger the relevant actions.

Health monitoring

Another smart building growth area is the monitoring of building health. As well as traditional temperature and humidity sensors, more environmental sensors are being added to buildings. These can include the detection of gases such as carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The data from these sensors can be used to better manage airflow and outdoor air exchange, improving air quality for residents. They can also enable predictive maintenance, where early warning of a leak or failing system enables a problem to be fixed before the building’s occupants even notice it.

Fire and smoke detection have always been connected, but we are today seeing more wireless connectivity with long-range wireless and Bluetooth for an installer interface.

Smarter and greener

There are still some challenges to smart buildings that will require skilled engineering and problem-solving. The primary challenge is technological: the wireless networks used must be extremely reliable and stable – nobody wants to get stuck in a lift, or be unable to turn their lights on, simply due to a connection problem.

Integrating wireless networks also exposes buildings to cyber vulnerabilities. To combat such threats, silicon vendors and product manufacturers have been stepping up their cybersecurity game. It’s critical that there is a continued focus on security when developing and distributing smart solutions in the building sector.

Of course, smart buildings are not limited to brand new structures; buildings can be retrofitted with smart technology as well. The ability to add wireless connectivity to existing systems simplifies adoption and can accelerate overall adoption of wireless communications in buildings.

In a decade that is critical to reducing CO2 emissions in all sectors and maximizing energy efficiency, the building sector needs smart building technology to meet new demands. As smart building adoption rises rapidly, built on the IoT, we will increasingly see the benefits – in reduced emissions, financial savings, and improved comfort for occupants.

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