Reducing energy consumption in buildings with digitalisation

Digitalisation, or digital transformation, is a term we have heard much about recently. The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of many technologies that enable digitalisation. Digital transformation is often a technical exercise, but to succeed, the transformation must demonstrate business value.

Driving forces for digitalisation

The goals of organisations may vary, but if your organisation’s goals are related to cost savings and climate goals, then digitalisation is a solution needed to get where we need to go. Regarding energy savings in buildings, digitalisation is often about collecting data, gaining insights into real-world conditions and, importantly, changing behaviour based on the data.

Overall climate goals

In the EU, the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030. Buildings significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, as nearly 75% of the EU’s building stock is energy inefficient. This means that much of the energy is wasted – in other words, it’s a “fire for the crows”. The global figure is also high, with up to 40% of energy consumption related to buildings globally. To reach the EU’s overall greenhouse gas reduction target by 2030, the building sector needs to reduce its emissions by 60%, which is a very demanding figure. For example, the current renovation rate of buildings across the EU needs to at least double to bring us anywhere nearer to the EU’s climate and energy targets.

Energy efficiency in buildings?

Whether the goal is to save money or to meet climate targets, you may realise that adding more insulation to walls and ceilings will not help us reach the targets. Other solutions are needed, i.e. digitalisation through disruptive technologies such as the Internet of Things that can provide insights. This has been recognised at the EU level, with the EU investing in grants and loans to promote new technologies in the construction sector. Smart meters, better building materials and digital tools contribute to energy efficiency.

What can you do in practice?

There are three ways to use digitalisation:

  • updating an existing system
  • adding technology that can provide the right insights
  • investing in a completely new system

To get insights, data needs to be collected regardless of the approach. This can be done through existing control systems that provide invaluable real-time data. If the control system is not in place or is of an older model, updating your existing system with permanently mounted sensors, or for that matter, temporary sensors, is a great way to generate learning from different environments and locations in the building. So even if the control system is older, insights can be created to drive behavioural change to achieve our goals.

Using data, we get deeper insights into indoor climate, where the premises are cold and where they are perceived as cold. In addition, air quality and weather conditions outside the building can be mapped. Smart sensors can measure humidity, temperature, air quality, and other essential parameters.

Suppose the property already has a control system and sensors. In that case, the table is set for those who want to analyse energy consumption, the ventilation system’s efficiency or the heating system’s performance, which can provide valuable insights into energy performance.

Control and act

No matter how you collect the data, you can use the data to varying degrees to control the heating system to optimise the building’s energy consumption. This can happen at many different levels. Smart sensors can directly regulate the temperature at the end of the food chain, and the control system can regulate it in real time. AI can also be used, for example, for predictive control. AI can collect and analyse large amounts of data from IoT devices such as sensors, thermostats, lighting and other connected devices in the building. Based on this data, AI can predict when and where energy will be needed and adjust energy consumption to avoid excess energy consumption.

AI can optimise energy consumption in a building by monitoring and adjusting systems such as lighting, heating and ventilation. For example, AI act and lower the temperature in unused rooms or change the lighting depending on whether or not there are people in the room.

It pays off

Buildings change hands, and technology upgrades are relatively rare. Property owners often have a mix of control systems or slightly older systems. But even though it can be challenging to get started, many studies show that IoT pays off.

There is much research showing that digitalisation can make a difference. A study at KTH examined how smart connected thermostats could reduce energy consumption. Smart thermostats minimise energy consumption by up to 26% for an average Swedish home. Researchers at Linköping University studied how connected buildings can use sensor data and predictive control to optimise heating and ventilation systems. The results showed a potential cost saving of up to 30%. University of California Berkeley researchers investigated how a connected building can use real-time data and machine learning to optimise the heating system. The results showed a saving of up to 20%.

Regulatory framework

We’ve all heard that lowering indoor temperatures saves energy. So why don’t we decrease the temperature? Of course, we can’t reduce the temperature as low as we like in both homes and offices. There are regulations for both homes and businesses regarding temperature and humidity, and indoor air quality must also be of good quality.

It is easy to be tempted to reduce the ventilation flow. It should not be forgotten that indoor air quality is vital for humans. Indoor air quality is one of the most essential components of our well-being. Moreover, since we spend most of our time indoors, we must breathe healthy air. Too high a concentration of CO2 can lead to headaches, nausea, and, worst case, vomiting.

CO2 is odourless and tasteless at low concentrations, so measuring and monitoring these levels is essential. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are also a gas at room temperature. There are thousands of VOCs, and several VOCs are present at the same time. Reducing ventilation too much increases the risk of these being released into the air.

So how do you get started?

For those who want to measure actively, an intelligent sensor that can be moved quickly can be an essential cog. It allows the property owner or employer to send the device to a stakeholder and immediately start measuring. Of course, lowering the indoor temperature is a step in the right direction, but you can’t drop it as low as you like, so data and insights are essential.