Opinion Piece by Dr Don McLean,
Founder & CEO, IES

The Three Levels of “How” to Decarbonise

27 November 2020

The Decarbonisation of the Built Environment could be a much more expensive exercise and less effective than it needs to be.  To prevent this, we need to consider the three levels of ‘How’ to decarbonise.

Level 1
Ask, at the first and broadest level, “how do we decarbonise by 2045?” and a constructive answer would be: by drastically reducing the carbon emissions from buildings, cities, transport, electricity and heating. 

This answer is not wrong. However, it is not a solution. Take a second to consider what it actually means to undertake decarbonisation and you’ll soon be overwhelmed by the enormity of what is entailed and the various routes you might take.

Without practical solutions that consider a holistic approach to decarbonising the built environment errors are highly likely, resulting in more capital and operational costs and a high probability of failing to decarbonise by 2045.

Level 2
So we delve deeper and land at the second “how” of decarbonisation.  National governments and international organisations, such as UNEP, have already provided excellent information on ‘how’ to drastically cut emissions across the sectors outlined at Level 1. From a built environment perspective, this includes:

  • Using EUIs to establish a baseline for building energy consumption and propose a number of % savings for improving the building envelope; or improving energy equipment efficiency;
  • Integrating buildings using community-wide solutions, such as district heating or cooling solutions; 
  • Deploying renewable energy solutions;
  • Developing a good building energy efficiency compliance code rating system;
  • Improving occupant use of the building e.g. not leaving lights on, etc.
  • and much more…

This is all well and good, until you consider the potential adverse effects and barriers to making these concepts work. They do not define how to improve energy efficiency of the building, how to develop community based district heating or cooling solutions, or how to enable uptake of renewable energy solutions, for example. 

Furthermore, there are still significant barriers to achieving the goals outlined. We know from past experience that building regulations, for example, do not work, often resulting in the ‘performance gap’ between energy predictions and actual performance and even, in some cases, posing risks to human health and comfort. 

We also know that no single solution can solve the issue in isolation. A holistic community approach to the built-environment, which also engages the citizens and technology providers key to any change, must be taken. So how can we decide on the right combination of options to achieve the best outcomes, engage those key stakeholders and avoid making decisions which will result in secondary problems or be too cost prohibitive? 

The current regime uses spreadsheets in abundance in an attempt to provide the information needed to help answer these questions. However, continuing to use spreadsheets to try and solve the problem will result in an expensive, inefficient and non-integrated approach to the decarbonisation process.

Level 3
This takes us to the third – and final – how? How exactly do you take the advice offered at level 2, make the right decisions and eliminate the risks? 

This is where IES, and our ICL Digital Twin technology, provide the ultimate “how” solution – how to implement a plan to decarbonisation of the built environment. Outdated methods such as spreadsheets and simplified mathematical approaches will never be able to answer this question for you.  It is extremely difficult to make a coherent and effective decarbonisation plan, understanding the actual impact of the different solutions, how they act holistically, and, most importantly, to track and monitor the progress of the plan.

This is where the ICL makes the difference. Using our unique integration of digitised physics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, we can help you create a digital twin of any community/group of buildings to analyse all the various decarbonisation options, identify and weigh up the risks and potential savings – prior to implementation – and monitor progress towards net-zero targets over time.

The IES ICL technology also utilises the concept of Augmented Intelligence – the all important ‘know how’ which enhances human intelligence, rather than replacing it – to de-risk the decarbonisation process. What’s more, the technology is supported by a complete step-by-step process, summarised below, which is proven to help navigate the route to net-zero:

  • Step 1 – Create a “Digital Twin” Baseline
    The ICL uses real operational building and site data to create a Digital Twin that responds exactly as your building(s) would in the real world. This provides an important baseline from which to test and monitor the various options and will be your most valuable digital asset throughout the Zero-Carbon process. 
  • Step 2: Optimise Control & Operation
    Investigate all the operational data from your building(s) to identify quick wins and problem areas and understand where simple control and operational changes can eliminate energy waste and improve occupant comfort and wellbeing. This step can be revisited throughout the life of the building(s) to prevent operational drift and continually improve performance.  
  • Step 3: Shallow Retrofit/Deep Retrofit
    Use the Digital Twin to simulate the impact of various retrofit measures at an individual building level or community scale. Explore how a collection of improvements will interact together and evaluate the best options for you depending on your budget, building constraints, KPIs, ROI or required payback period. Implement the best options and then check, using the Digital Twin, that the improvements were achieved. 
  • Step 4: Design of Local Energy and Flexibility Market
    Consider how to meet as much of your energy demand from local sharing as possible. Explore interactions and connections with other buildings or local resources, use the ICL Digital Twin to understand the Energy Demand of different assets and the network as a whole, map interactions and match supply and demand. Evaluate the potential for demand response and flexibility at the Community Level and engage with partners who can deliver energy trading solutions or aggregation of the community’s energy. 
  • Step 5: Integrate Renewable Generation
    Evaluate on-site generation opportunities through renewable energy production and identify renewable energy strategies at the building and site level that will enable you to take that final step to Zero-Carbon. Leverage the power of physics-based simulation to calculate projected renewable generation profiles across the year and at different times of the day, to work out whether renewable generation will meet demand or if storage solutions are required. 

The process is flexible, meaning the end user can start at any step, skip a step or complete the whole process from start to finish depending on their current progress in their own decarbonisation roadmap.

This entire process is underpinned by the ICL’s ability to gather and analyse any level of data within a single platform and your net-zero ambitions will be supported by powerful visualisation tools to empower, engage and inform each and every citizen, occupant, owner, building or estate manager on ways in which they can play their part in the decarbonisation process.  At any stage in the process, the ICL Digital Twin can be used to engage with local citizens and technology providers, using a cloud-based 3D public model to share ideas and pathways and gather feedback from local stakeholders.

Already, this process and our ICL technology has been used to help design a Positive Energy Block (PEB) – i.e. a group of buildings which produce more primary energy on an annual basis than they consume – in Limerick, Ireland. Following the process outlined, the ICL Digital Twin uncovered a net annual non-renewable energy demand reduction of 34% over baseline as well as surplus energy production of 0.4GWh/year, thereby creating a PEB. Read more on the Limerick project here.

This is a real, tangible solution to how we decarbonise the built environment. To find out more about how the ICL can be deployed as part of a Complete Zero-Carbon Process, visit: https://www.iesve.com/digital-twins or contact the IES team today.

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