Imagining the Future of Energy Efficiency in Minnesota
On Tuesday, the Innovation Exchange hosted its first Technology Forum. The energy at the event was palpable as a diverse group of professionals ranging from engineers, architects, and developers to utility personnel, state energy officials, policymakers, and other energy enthusiasts filled the audience. The event brought both national and local energy experts to the stage to deliver perspectives on the future development and application of energy efficiency innovations in Minnesota.
The evening set out to explore a number of questions. Of course questions don’t always lead to clear answers, especially around such complex issues, but there were many takeaways.
While there has been national speculation as to whether or not we have reached the limitations of building equipment efficiency, it was clear that these are not just opportunities of the past. Instead, we are operating in a “data-first” mesosphere – between the equipment efficiency world of the past and the wise infrastructure world of the future. Multiple speakers touched on opportunities for increased efficiency that occurred at the equipment level, but called on the integration of advanced controls and building awareness to harness the increased efficiency. While there was mention of appliance standards and enhanced building codes, the largest wedge of potential energy savings comes from other energy efficiency activity.
The “data-first” industry reorientation was the thickest thread that wove itself through the evening. From advanced controls and meters that can utilize interval data to technologies that challenge the bounds of customer user engagement, we are clearly living in a time where information is seen as a must. This is especially true if we want to continue to bend the branch of the energy efficiency fruit tree to pluck the lowest hanging fruit. But the impacts of energy efficiency innovations vary across the country, so what technologies are defining our state’s edge?
Minnesota’s Energy Efficiency Edge
“One word. Rhubarb.” Mark Brown, COO of MyMeter, took us straight to the heart of Minnesota’s beloved garden space hog to answer the question of what technology innovations do we see being relevant in Minnesota in ten to twenty years. Harvard scientists recently argued the powerful potential of rhubarb-fueled batteries, and while this seems like a fuzzy technology that could only exist in the far-off future, Mark’s point was taken. Minnesota is a sphere unto itself, a “Moxie Mine” if you will. Not only does it have its own ubiquitous rhubarb resource, but an abundance of innovative businesses, institutions, and organizations that have a quiet way of collaborating and finding local solutions.
Tim Hebrink, Staff Scientist in the corporate research department at 3M, shared a not-so-secret tip about the company’s research and innovation process when he reminded the audience that great ideas and “uncommon connections” are reached through collaboration and lots of idea sharing. As Minnesota looks to advance its “energy efficiency edge”, facilitating collaboration when innovations are without pragmatic applications and sharing technology gaps amongst energy experts and products R&D experts are vital. More regularly a large and diverse web of energy, building, and innovation experts should collaborate on finding ideas for innovation.
Dynamic Controls and Materials
One could not have left the event without roof top units being front of mind. Brought up at three different points throughout the evening, advanced controls for rooftop units might be one of the next big demand side management strategies for energy utilities. With cost savings in Minnesota on the order of 30 to 40 percent, this could be the fluorescent lamp of the future.* But more broadly than this, Stein, Executive Vice President of utility information resource company E Source, and Szydlowski, CEE’s Director of Engineering and Business Development, and Hebrink all prepared the audience for thinking about the building environment differently.
The buildings of the future should not just be garnished with advanced controls, but that building design and occupant interaction should be dynamic; a facility manager should know which rooms are too warm and too cold based on real-time feedback and building materials of the future won’t just serve one purpose, but multiple purposes, such as a wall panel that is a high insulator while also a source of light penetration and solar energy generation.
The Value of Energy Intelligent Customers
As the industry and the customers demand more and more energy technologies, they cannot be developed at the expense of personal life-style. This question has been asked repeatedly for the last fifteen plus years, but Stein affirmed that this is an age-old barrier that isn’t going away. Instead, we turn to increased customer engagement. According to Brown, while technologies and interfaces that are able to increase engagement frequency show 4 percent to 6 percent energy savings over the 2 percent energy savings of more passive engagement strategies, we may need to focus increasingly on the side-benefits of our behavior-driving technologies. If customers are the power plants of the future, are engagement technologies the sipping straws from which energy intelligence can and should be consumed?
The value of energy efficiency was summed up succinctly by Stein as the single greatest discovery of mankind. “Energy efficiency is a purely good thing. It makes people richer and helps the environment.” Steve Nadel, the Executive Director at the DC-headquartered American Council for an Energy Efficiency Economy, further underscored the opportunities that energy efficiency holds for customers and energy utilities as they undergo a necessary metamorphosis. The future tools and resources available to utilities and energy consumers are going to come from more research, collaboration, idea sharing, and piloting with an eye on what makes sense for Minnesota innovators and consumers.
The event was the first in a series of events this year commemorating CEE’s 35th anniversary. Stay tuned for more information on CEE’s next 35th anniversary Forum.
Image credit: Patrick DB