When I was a child, there were only a few large TV networks and newspapers. As the years passed these transformed into thousands of cable TV channels, and then into online networks, like YouTube and Netflix and thousands of internet channels. Media fragmentation created options, permutations, combinations, and demanded a different skill set for consuming it.
Our energy and building technologies are now transitioning from the old, centralized way to decentralized, diversified ways. New and varied skills will be needed. We may be in the mechanical business, but we need to know about electricity, electronics, buildings that are both self-contained and part of micro-grids, micro-grids that are both islanded and part of the global energy matrix.
During the AHR Expo in Las Vegas this February and in preparation for CMPX in Toronto in March, Google has been doing media interviews about its Nest Pro Program, part of its continuing vision to become a key part of every human family and business on Earth. “We see the thermostat as the centre of any smart home and we have millions of Nest installations,” says Gene Lanois, Nest Pro director. His pitch is that contractors who sign up can be digitally connected as the installer of the system, whenever service is needed.
Smart home technology is expected to grow more than 13 per cent each year, from $126 billion this year to about $208 billion in 2026, when there will be nearly 600 million users, about one-quarter of the world’s buildings. The largest and most lucrative market is North America, which is already about $35 billion. Household penetration rates in Canada are very high, 32 per cent now and 53 per cent by 2026, a $4.1 billion business in the U.S.
In 2020, Johnson Controls acquired Qolsys Inc., a smart-home manufacturer. Its trade show narrative involves a “connected world strategy,” and a new Zigbee mesh router that can communicate with up to 35 wirelessly enabled equipment controllers at distances of 250 ft. It’s also pushing Metasys IP equipment controllers that offer pandemic pressurization mode for instant higher levels of ventilation flush, and touting its 300 per cent investment increase in heat pumps and natural refrigerants. According to Global Market Insights, the worldwide electric heat pump market will grow from $53 billion in 2020 to $85 billion in 2028.
Buildings and vehicles as batteries
If you have solar panels on your roof, electricity storage in the garage and an electric car full of lithium batteries, you’ve got power that could be accessed with or without grid utility.
We rarely use it, but we want 300 miles of range when buying an electric car. That’s a lot of power relative to the needs of houses and some businesses. Not surprisingly, engineers see an opportunity for sharing at specific times. There is currently an explosion of technology development to support this possibility.
Ford is advertising that its new electric F-150 pickup truck will be vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capable, to power your house in an emergency.
Communities as energy producers
Canada learned from a tragedy in July 2013 when a 73-car freight train carrying crude oil accidentally rolled down a hill and derailed in downtown Lac Mégantic, a small Quebec town east of Sherbrooke. Several railcars exploded, killing 47 people. About half the buildings were destroyed and the other half contaminated beyond saving.
The town has moved forward, rebuilding, and installing a modern microgrid, which consists of solar panels, energy storage and load management tools. The control system can switch off Hydro-Québec and operate independently during extreme weather events. Lac Mégantic is not alone. Medicine Hat College in Alberta has installed a micro-grid that includes a solar parking lot canopy and E.V. charging station. It will act as an equipment testing site for innovators, a learning lab for students, and a demonstration project for the province.
Prince Edward Island is building a micro-grid with a 10-megawatt solar array generating enough power for about 6,000 typical homes, and grid-connected batteries. It will provide clean energy and peak load management in a self-contained residential, industrial, and commercial community. It’s connected to the grid, but can also be islanded.
The Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, sixty-two miles from the nearest electricity in B.C. recently completed a solar energy microgrid with 1,000 kilowatt/hours of battery storage that will reduce the community’s reliance on fossil fuels by 60 per cent.
Virtual power plants
Tesla has some projects in California and Australia called “virtual power plants.” It also involves voluntary assemblage of self-generators to trade power with the larger grid. Similar programs are known as demand response, and may involve only smart meters and thermostats like in Ontario. They help utilities avoid building more gas plants for peak demand. In Tesla’s case, the software brings together a block of available renewable power from disparate rooftop solar or home battery sources.
Siemens has created a “micro-grid lab” for experimentation at its headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey. It consists of a parking lot solar carport, electric vehicle charging stations, batteries, and software. ASHRAE has created something similar at its renovated new headquarters in Peachtree, Georgia.
Overall costs for micro-grids have declined by 25 to 30 per cent since 2014, and according to Researchandmarkets.com in Dublin, the global microgrid market will grow from 24.6 billion in 2021 to $42.3 billion by 2026. Bloomberg NEF predicts that electricity storage will grow faster, doubling six times from 2016 to 2030.
In the U.S. and Canada, homeowners and business owners have been installing about a half-million rooftop solar systems each year. While Canada’s growth has been slower, it has begun to ramp up.