As buzzword bingo goes, Blockchain, Microgrid and BAS are all heavy hitters in the tech lexicon. Can all three work together to score a game changer in building automation and sustainability?
In a briefing with start-up building automation system vendor BEM Controls, COO Rasheq Rahman related that approximately 95% of commercial real estate in the U.S. is made up of buildings that are less than 50,000 square feet. According to Mr. Rahman this equates to about 5.2 million buildings in the U.S. alone that could make up an addressable market for building automation solutions aimed at small-to-medium sized commercial properties. And, while the implications for automating small buildings is potentially huge, one aside in our conversation caught my attention as being a potential “game changer” in the smartgrid space.
The case for microgrids
A subset of the smartgrid concept, the microgrid idea, quite simply, is to equip a small cluster of buildings with energy generation capabilities (think Solar/PV, small windmills, etc.) that can feed the energy grid to offset energy usage within those buildings. Similar to BAS, the concept of microgrids is not a new. Siemens, along with many other industrial control vendors has a microgrid solution. Large utilities are also getting into the act. Two years ago at an ETS energy summit in Austin, TX I heard ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore speak about a microgrid project in the Bronzeville section of Chicago (the project was “green lighted” earlier this year).
While it is always encouraging to see big business and government throw their collective weight behind a project, the pace at which large actors move can, at times, be as much of a hindrance to widepread commerical momentum as a catalyst. So, even as I first began hearing about microgrids, a question that stood out in my mind was, “How to these move from pet projects to a broad-based movement?”
Turns out that academic institutions are asking the same questions, and are begining to dive into projects related to using blockchain technology as the commercial fabric for a system of microgrids that could help to help small clusters of buildings become energy neutral, or even bring electricity to hard to reach areas. The idea here is that building owners can leverage blockchain technology as the payment medium to share revenues and/or credits related to making their buildings energy neutral. Why blockchain? Because it could allow these building owners to embark upon their own projects potentially independent from the initiatives being undertaken by large power companies (that require regulatory approval for nearly every project that they undertake).
Beyond setting up a money changing system, blockchains can also become the protocol for allowing multiple building owners to make changes to the microgrid in a distributed, yet secure manner. At the same time, there has to be a medium to control the grid. This is where BAS solutions aimed at smaller buildings could come into play.
Can open source BAS become a control hub for microgrids?
The short answer to the question above is, “yes”. Above, there is a link highlighting a Siemens solution that more or less uses the BAS concept to manage a microgrid. However, to really capture the true spirit of “micro” in the microgrid concept, the technology must be accessible on a cost effective basis to the owners the more than 5 million small-to-medium buildings in the U.S. This is where open source BAS platforms from the likes of BEM Controls, and others, could have a profound impact. Leveraging BAS systems to control a small “system of systems” of, say, 10 buildings to form a microgrid could be the key to helping smaller building owners create a microgrid without having to rely on the Siemens and/or ComEds of the world.
Taking the concept to its logical conclusion(s), one could envision this type of scenario being deployed in extremely remote parts of the world to act as the catalyst that provides a stable energy supply to not only keep the proverbial lights on, but also power wireless broadband connectivty options such as initiatives being evangelized by the GSMA’s Connected Society program.