How BT is using digital technologies to help buildings become more sustainable
According to the World Green Building Council, buildings are responsible for almost 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, and they are also responsible for consuming at least 30% of energy globally, according to the IEA.
When it comes to selecting partnerships, enterprises can easily check on a supplier or partner’s green credentials, to make sure they pick the most environmentally-friendly providers in order to create the most sustainable products. But emissions from their own buildings can be more challenging to tackle.
For one, while organisations can ask employees to be conscious of turning off appliances, they have no direct control over it, and secondly, businesses’ old appliances can be using up more energy than they know.
At the BT Sustainability Festival this week, TI witnessed how digital technologies such as IoT sensors, AI, and potentially digital twins could come in handy to help firms reach their net-zero targets.
Using sensors with Johnson Controls
“So how do we start knocking down that 40%?” asks Katie McGinty, vice president and chief sustainability and external relations officer at Johnson Controls.
This week, at BT’s Sustainability Festival, the UK telco incumbent (although much more than that nowadays) announced a new collaboration with smart buildings firm, Johnson Controls, to help businesses reach net zero faster within their four walls.
“A lot of customers have set science-based net-zero targets,” BT’s global head of sustainability, Sarwar Khan tells TI.
“What that really means is they have to cut their end-to-end emissions across their operations, which includes things like their buildings, their fleets, and also their supply chain.”
According to Khan, buildings and on-site energy is the hardest area to tackle at the moment, because a lot of organisations are very reluctant to connect their operational assets to the cloud.
“So they’re not fully leveraging the benefits of cloud, and mainly AI, as a way of driving down emissions and optimising their operations for energy efficiency,” says Khan.
Alongside Johnson Controls, BT hopes to help businesses make their buildings smart and therefore increase energy efficiency across their operations, “and accelerate decarbonisation.”
McGinty puts decarbonising buildings into three different categories: efficiency, electrification, and digitalisation.
With efficiency, a business could, for example, rip out its old heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units. Then, “you put in the new and you’re looking at about a 30% cut in your electricity load in that building.”
“HVAC is the single largest slice of electric load in the world and the single fastest growing, so we need to tackle that,” she says.
The second category, electrification, is what comes in when the HVAC is replaced.
In her keynote at the BT Sustainability event, McGinty explains that heat pumps – machines that use renewable energy to transfer heat from industrial waste heat – can replace existing HVAC units to provide a more efficient, cost-effective heating and cooling system.
“For example, the heat from a power plant, or food and beverage plant,” McGinty explains, “and every ounce of energy is put to productive use in creating space heating or water heating.”
Next, is the digitalisation.
“Buildings right now are just a big on-and-off switch,” says McGinty.
With the help of IoT sensors, heat pumps can be completely digitalised and their usage displayed on an online platform called Open Blue.
“Johnson Controls is providing our customers with their Open Blue platform,” says Khan. “We’re combining that with BT’s secure and resilient networks.”
With sensors that collect the energy used by the heat pumps, lighting, and the rest of the electricity, companies can visualise and understand exactly where excess energy is being used, and with the use of AI and ML, they can learn how to create better energy efficiency.
So, if the lights and plug sockets are all switched on, on floor four of a building, and yet no one is there, the data from the sensors can tell you that through an easy-to-understand screen.
“You empower organisations to receive that data in a way they can actually do something with that data.”
“So one part is getting a baseline and an understanding of the energy use within the buildings itself., and another part is analysing and correlating the data,” explains Khan.
“Our collaboration with Johnson Controls will help BT deliver on its pledge to help customers avoid 60 million tonnes of CO2 by the end of March 2030,” says Khan.
In other ongoing partnerships, BT has also joined forces with another company called QiO to provide an AI-powered solution using IoT sensors, machinery control settings, databases, external data and energy sources to identify how best to reduce energy consumption.
Hosted on a BT Edge Compute device, the firm “optimises those sever equipment and the data itself based on the way the customers are running the workloads and applications,” explains Khan.
“So, there are periods where, actually, you don’t need to run data on your servers because you’re out of business hours, but those servers are still running hot and consuming power.”
However, AI can look for opportunities where it can power the server down into a deep sleep and effectively cool the output.
In addition, BT also works with data centre provider Equinix to minimise the footprint of data centres for their customers by powering their data centres with 100% renewable energy.
In conversation with TI, Khan hails the use of IoT and sensors, not only for the use of visualising data on a platform with Johnson Control, but perhaps, hypothetically, for digital twins as well.
As data is collected, it is possible to use it to simulate the occupancy of an office, or any public building, on different days, and at different times of the week.
“As well as bringing in some of those other macros factors such as external weather forecasts, internal temperatures, and use that as a way of making smart decisions of how to operate your building more efficiently,” he says.
Plus, Khan points out that while buildings contribute to 40% of global carbon emissions, 40% of that statistic is actually in building the actual building.
“If you could leverage digital twins as a capability, you wouldn’t actually need to build anything, you could simulate that and create a real 3D model in terms of what that building could look like, how we could operate in terms of efficiency,” he says.
“I think digital twins and IoT are the tools that we’re really starting to see organisations adopt as a way of driving down carbon and also looking at increasing energy efficiency.”
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