The Path to Net Zero: A Shout Out to Building Operators

Like they don’t have enough to do already, facility managers and building operators are now working to manage both sides of the electrical meter. The evolution of buildings incorporating advanced systems, highly integrated controls and distributed generation (typically photovoltaics) is growing and driving a dramatic leap in the skills needed to operate and maintain both comfort and energy efficiency.

Building operators have responsibilities today that were rarely imagined just a decade ago. Two that were spotlighted in our study “Zero Net Energy Building Controls” were 1) the Internet of Things (I o T) – a shorthand name for sensors now being in everything from cooling systems to copiers to the coffee maker within buildings, and 2) Distributed Generation whereby the building operator ensures not only the building’s operational energy use but also the generation and distribution of energy back to the grid. This is a whole new world and ground ‘zero’ is in the hands of the operator.

Zero is a key concept for hundreds of today’s operators who have performance-based targets for the final energy outcomes of the building systems and its distributed generation. To get to zero net energy the operator must take (ideally) a very well designed building and systems and run them real time with all the nuances and variables that were only modeling hypothesis for the design team. For the Operator the needle is always moving and there is no static point of ‘zero’ net energy. Comfort and safety override energy as do resource and time constraints. Experience and training on new HVAC or lighting systems, and in particular controls and monitoring systems, are rare. Many operators cited feeling isolated from the design assumptions and abandoned regarding the hand off of operational and commissioning needs.

Presenting recently at a seminar hosted by Walsh Construction I noted some of these factors and an operator came up to me after and said “Thanks for the shout out! We rarely get noted in this path to zero”. Yet this statement, and the NBI study findings, are a ‘Cry Out’ to the building industry regarding the critical and increasing role of operations (and occupancy) on energy use as building design and technologies are improving. Today as much as 50% of a building’s energy performance outcome lies in the hands of the operator and the occupants.

Examples of new trainings and opportunities do exist – the Building Operator Certification program, the South Seattle College’s new controls modules within their two-year associate degree programs, the work of BOMA to provide leading training on advanced building operations, and the integration of ZNE operational training through trade industries like IBEW. I will be visiting the IBEW’s ZNE San Leandro building which is designed to ZNE and serves as a training facility for members and an example of low-energy use building with photovoltaic generation. New commissioning skills tagged as “ZNE Cx” are emerging and more owners and managers are realizing the value of third-party management to deliver deeper cross-cutting skills.

Meanwhile we must move the dialog from the burden of the costs of getting operators training and resources to the cost of NOT getting them. A building that lacks a strong and supported operator is a building that will have tenant complaints, reduced leasing, higher operating costs, and lower asset value and ultimately fail to meet new performance-based policies and carbon accounting that are under consideration. Giving operators the elevated recognition and tools they need and deserve today will increase real estate value for tomorrow. This is a shout out that everyone should hear.

Cathy Higgins, Research Director