A bird in the hand

Although renewable technologies have been hitting the headlines, Steve Browning of Trend Controls explains why maximising the effectiveness of an existing building energy management system (BEMS) should be at the top of the list of ways to reduce energy use and save money.

With building owners and managers under immense pressure to implement systems that reduce the amount of energy used by their premises, many are led to believe that the best way of achieving this goal is to invest in renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines and solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. However, while the focus has been on getting as many buildings as possible to generate their own power, many  people have failed to realise that the most effective way of controlling energy use could be right under their noses via their building energy management systems (BEMS).

On target
The targets for carbon reduction in the UK are deliberately tough and the long-term framework outlined by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) sets out plans for achieving the reductions in carbon emissions stated in the Climate Change Act 2008.

The Act aims to encourage the transition to a low carbon economy in the UK through unilateral legally binding emissions reduction targets. When compared to 1990 levels this equates to a reduction of at least 34 per cent by 2020 and at least 80 per cent by 2050. As they are responsible for 17 per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions, the nation’s 1.8 million non-domestic buildings are at the very heart of meeting this challenge.

Given the massive amount of publicity that renewable technology has achieved, it is no surprise that a large number of building owners and managers have been investing in these systems – a move no doubt helped by the attractive Feed-In-Tariffs (FITS) that have been offered to those taking the plunge. However, sentiment towards FITs changed in early 2011 when the government announced that it planned to reduce the payments to new buildings installing solar PV by half – from 43.3p per kWh to 21p – for schemes up to 4kW in size.

Up in the air
The reduced rate was due to take effect on installations completed after 12th December 2011 and the changes would take effect from 1st April 2012. This threw the whole return on investment (ROI) argument for solar PV into the air and led to a huge flurry of activity towards the end of last year as consumers raced to beat the deadline in order to qualify for the higher FIT rate.

However, the government’s plans were challenged in the High Court by Friends of the Earth and two solar companies – HomeSun and Solarcentury – when they pointed out that the introduction of the new tariffs were due to be applied before the consultation on them had been completed. They argued that those who completed their installations after 13th December 2011 should get the higher rate as the government's bid to cut the subsidies from a date that fell within the consultation period was unlawful.

On 25th January 2012 the High Court ruled that the government could not reduce solar subsidies and the decision means the current tariff of 43.3p is likely to remain in place until 3rd March. The High Court ruled that changing the tariffs before the end of an official consultation period was ‘legally flawed’.

Still, despite this legal action the government has remained resolute that the lower tariff will be introduced and there’s little doubt that those looking at solar PV will have to look again at the numbers.

Think again
Now that the payback period associated with installing renewable technology is likely to be considerably longer than expected, it provides an opportunity to focus attention on the role that a BEMS can play in controlling energy usage. Given that up to 84 per cent of a building’s energy usage can be under the control of this type of system, taking control of an asset most building owners and users already have at their disposal is the logical thing to do.

It is currently estimated that 80 per cent of the buildings that will be in the UK in 2020 are already built and therefore it is important to take control of these first. It makes obvious sense to reduce energy bills immediately from something is already installed before thinking about investing in more energy sources – especially if these have high investment costs and long payback periods.

The Carbon Trust has shown that a carbon reduction of 70-75 per cent can be achieved in non-domestic buildings at no net cost. A reduction of this size can be made in a way that not only is cost effective, but brings with it additional other benefits in terms of productivity and quality of life for those who occupy buildings, which in time will translate into value for building owners, occupiers and investors.

A properly specified, installed and maintained BEMS will ensure that building services operate in strict accordance with demand, thereby avoiding unnecessary use of energy. The data produced allows building managers to better analyse, understand, reconfigure and improve their site's energy usage and costs by having it presented in an organised and informative way.

Already there
Rather worryingly, the government’s Low Carbon Construction IGT report found that the property sector is not routinely measuring accurate operational energy use and carbon emissions from commercial buildings. And as the saying goes, ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’.

When a BEMS is first commissioned it is configured around an existing building layout and occupancy patterns. These can change over time and incorrectly configured time clocks and set points, new layouts, repartitioning, and the addition or moving of equipment can lead to some areas being too warm or too cold – all of which has a massive effect on the energy consumption data produced.

In short it can only work to its full potential if it is maintained correctly. In order to rectify such a situation, it is advisable to undertake an audit that ascertains what can be achieved by reviewing the way a building is used and identifying energy saving opportunities.

Very often adjustments can be made to the operation of the BEMS that deliver immediate savings, while items such as boilers, chillers, air conditioning and pumps can be checked to make sure they are working correctly. Any maintenance issues to do with the BEMS itself or the building services equipment use can also be addressed.

A win-win situation
After the audit a comprehensive report is then submitted detailing the modifications made, any on-site issues and the expected energy savings.
It is almost never too soon to consider the value of system optimisation and taking immediate action can help enhance the lifecycle of the energy infrastructure.

Just as importantly, the investment required to get a system working well is minimal and will undoubtedly lead to improved energy efficiency and reduced cost. Also, once these savings are acted upon they can, in turn, be used to drive even bigger reductions in energy usage.

Also, organisations such as the UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC) are calling for the roll-out of Display Energy Certificates (DECs) to all non-domestic buildings, believing they could provide a foundation for related policy mechanisms and drive the market. If this happens then the use of a BEMS and the information that can be gathered from it will be useful in achieving the best rating possible.

Financial times
For those buildings in the public sector that do not have a BEMS installed, the cost of purchase and installation may seem prohibitive. However, this is not necessarily the case due to the existence of government funded bodies such as Salix Finance, which aims to accelerate investment by public sector bodies in energy efficiency technologies through invest to save schemes.

Salix is funded by DECC, The Welsh Assembly Government and The Scottish Government via The Carbon Trust. It provides funding for proven technologies that are cost effective in saving CO2 and that can maximise the potential of any further energy saving technologies. To date it has engaged with around 725 organisations  and has funded 7,500 projects, valued at £178m, which will save the public sector £53m annually and £700m over the lifetime of the projects.

Look to the future
While renewable technologies have a vital role to play in reducing the UK’s energy usage in line with government targets, we also need to encourage building owners and managers to take control of their building services infrastructures. BEMS are at the forefront of the drive towards greater energy efficiency, and the cost savings and environmental benefits that can be experienced as a result of investment in this technology are considerable – but only if they are correctly configured and maintained.