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Does the meter matter? Green buildings and better grid citizenship.

The first workshop I attended at Greenbuild — the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual conference — began with a panel moderator looking out over her audience of 50-75 participants and asking for a show of hands to get a rough idea of demographics. Architects? City planners? Advocates? Engineers? Financiers?

Similar headcounts were taken in almost every workshop I went to over the next three days — the conference ran Nov. 7-10 in Boston — and in each case, I waited for the various speakers to ask if anyone from a utility was in the house. With one exception, no one ever did — ask or raise their hands.

Greenbuild showfloor
The tradeshow floor at Greenbuild 2017 in Boston — all about LEED and the customer side of the meter. (Source: USGBC)

Utilities were, in fact, notable by their low visibility at Greenbuild, as speakers, exhibitors and as attendees. All of which left me increasingly curious.

We are in the midst of a disruptive, industry-wide transformation of the U.S. energy sector. Long-standing organizational and technical silos are being dismantled; new collaborative partnerships are driving innovation. Super-efficient green buildings, many with solar and many LEED certified, are connected to the grid. So, why do we have this apparent disconnect between the green building community and utilities?

As I attended more workshops and spent time on the trade show floor, talking with architects, energy management software firms, and the few companies offering rooftop or building-integrated solar, a general, if oversimplified answer emerged.

Specifically, green buildings — beautifully efficient, sustainable and resilient — are seen as having value primarily on the customer side of the meter. Neither utilities nor green builders have been successful in breaking down this particular silo — at least not yet.

Let me hasten to say, I do not believe this situation is deliberate on either side, but rather the unintentional result of different perspectives and starting points. Certainly, no one who attended Greenbuild can doubt the passion and sense of mission of the individuals and organizations at the conference; they really are changing the way buildings are designed and used.

But the meter has a long-standing history as the basic dividing line between customers and utilities as far as control and visibility of electricity is concerned. Essentially, in an energy system based on one-way, centralized power production, what happens on the customer side of the meter has been opaque to utilities, and customers have been suspicious of any utility intrusion into this space.

The emergence and spread of distributed energy resources — solar, storage, microgrids, demand response, electric vehicles and other smart home and grid technologies — has begun to make the meter a more permeable interface. In this new paradigm, power and communications between customers and utilities must flow both ways.

Green buildings, and zero-net homes and offices — which are designed to produce as much energy as they use — can and should be seen as grid assets. The shared visibility they make possible on both sides of the meter can provide multiple value streams for customers and the grid.

Better grid citizenship

The idea that green builders should be looking beyond the customer side of the meter surfaced at the one workshop where the presenter, Ted Tiffany, asked about utilities in the audience, and a few hands were raised. Tiffany, Director of Sustainability at Guttmann & Blaevoet, a San Francisco-based zero-net engineering firm, made a case for better “grid citizenship” as an integral part of the green building process.

Tiffany’s presentation started from the premise of the grid as a critical community resource, which solar and the other distributed technologies often used in zero-net buildings could affect. Solar overproduction and the resulting mid-day dip in electricity demand and steep evening ramp — aka the duck curve — were explained.

gap between zero-net design and zero-net operation
The gap between zero-net design and zero-net operation: Solar production vs. electricity consumption at the Solara affordable housing project in California (Source: Malcolm Lewis, CTG Energetics, Inc.)

Changes on both sides of the meter are needed, Tiffany said, including more flexible grid infrastructure, as well as solar and buildings designed to evolve with and leverage smart technologies and utility rate reform. For example, Tiffany envisioned solar systems that are “right-sized” for adding battery storage, incorporate tracking technology to take advantage of time-of-use pricing, and can self-curtail to avoid overproduction.

As zero-net building moves toward becoming a required standard for new construction — as will happen in California between 2020 and 2030 — partnering with utilities should become a best practice for the industry, he said.

Low-profile PEER

Data and how to use it — to increase efficiency, value and innovation — have become hot topics at conferences across all sectors of the energy industry, and Greenbuild was no exception. The focus in Boston was on Arc, the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) rating system for building performance.

Arc encompasses water, transport and waste, as well as electricity, but the energy data needed and produced for the rating could be a starting point for more collaborative partnerships between utilities and green builders. The prospects here for customer-grid benefits are intriguing — from more targeted demand management programs to grid support services.

At this point, however, such ideas are largely missed opportunities, possibly due to the complexities of data security, privacy and proprietary systems. For example, I spoke with an executive from an energy management and analysis firm who told me the company does not get its raw data on building performance from utilities, but from its own meters and sensors.

The challenges of bridging the utility-green building disconnect were best captured in Boston by the low profile of PEER, the USGBC’s attempt to create a green rating program for energy system planning. PEER — or Performance Excellence in Energy Renewal — was originally rolled out at Greenbuild 2015 in Washington, D.C., with a day-long workshop to introduce the program. (The article I wrote about it at the time is here.)

This year, PEER’s sole point of visibility at the conference was a test rating for the event’s microgrid, located in a far corner of the tradeshow floor. According to a press release from the USGBC, one of the only projects to earn a PEER rating this year was an almost 20-year-old cogeneration plant at Bucknell University.

The USGBC says it remains committed to PEER, while attributing the slow uptake of the program to the long timeframes typically involved in energy system planning. But, what is also clear is that utilities, energy planners and other key industry stakeholders have not bought into the system.

The utility industry — conservative and risk averse as it still can be — already has a number of rating and benchmarking systems that track key performance indicators similar to those in PEER. In addition, the integration of distributed technologies is making system planning increasingly complex, and possibly more difficult to fit into a numerical rating system like PEER.

But, these technologies and their use in green and zero-net buildings should — and hopefully soon will — foster strategic partnerships between utilities and green builders. Collaborative models are available; for example, the pilot projects testing the grid support capabilities of solar-plus-storage recently announced by Sunverge Energy and utilities in Arizona, Florida and Vermont.

On Dec. 5, the USGBC will be holding a PEER workshop in Kentucky as part of a state-funded effort to promote the rating system among its energy leaders and small utilities.

Whatever the outcome, the day-long event could provide a platform for better communication between the green building community and utilities, as well as better attendance at each other’s conferences. Both industries are committed to reliability, resilience, safety, efficiency, affordability, and the promotion of clean energy and grid modernization. By focusing on common goals, we should be able to find ways to work together.

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