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Constructive criticism

Should the UK be spending tens of billions of pounds in a new infrastructure to expand, clean and upgrade the electricity network or invest more money to reduce demand for power?  Is the power consumption of buildings an environmental, technological, economic or educational problem?  Will we soon be watching television on low-voltage devices which are powered by the same cable used now for data transmission?  These are just some of the questions which a team of researchers led by Professor John Counsell at the…

Constructive criticism

Article by Peter Barr

“We're failing in building design, because we don't deliver what customers ask for,” says Professor John Counsell, Director of the BRE Centre of Excellence in Energy Utilisation.  “For example,most building control systems fall well short of what people want or require.  They are generally very crude and simple and  use technology that goes back to the 1950s.  Even the advanced BEM (Building Energy Management) systems use crude control strategies which date back to that era” 

Faced with the energy problems of most buildings, ancient and modern, Counsell and his team of researchers at the BRE Centre – funded by the BRE Trust – are trying to transform the way we manage and design the built environment, not just developing new products and technologies for Energy Demand Reduction (EDR), Electricity Load Management (ELM) and advanced building control, but also helping to develop the BRE’s standards and new methodologies for assessing the energy efficiency and controllability of buildings. 

The problem is not just the buildings, however.  The  challenge also lies with the people inside them, the people who design them and the people who build them and sell them.  And Counsell sees the challenge for the BRE Centre as not just the science but also the “psychology” and marketing of commercial buildings, getting all of us to think more about how we manage our buildings and how to improve them, making advanced controls for EDR and ELM a must-have, desirable feature – not just an afterthought.  

“When people buy a laptop,” says Counsell, “they want all the latest new features.  So why should buying a new office building be different?”  And the same approach could also be applied to all appliances – and buildings. 

Energy conservation measures are very important, says Counsell, but they don't lead to radical improvements.  “It's all about appliances and EDR and ELM,” Counsell continues.  “That's where the biggest revolution will come.”  Counsell also stresses the need for an integrated approach to building design: “There is an almost zero correlation between better insulation and  EDR,” he explains.  “There's no point insulating a building if you then throw in a lot of inefficient electronic devices and inefficient heating systems.  We've known for many years how to improve the basic fabric of buildings, but we're only beginning to learn how to manage them better, in terms of energy management and utilisation.” 

Counsell's background is in mechanical engineering and control systems engineering.  He completed his PhD at British Aerospace, before joining EA Technology (formerly the Electricity Research Council) in 1991 – when he saw a “huge opportunity” to transfer his skills in leading-edge systems engineering to the demand-side energy management business, including work on domestic heating systems and field trials involving more than 500 households.  This was followed by a spell at Lancaster University, then back to industry with Brother International, before his current appointment at the BRE Centre.

From aerospace systems to gas-fired central heating boilers may seem a long way to come, but for Counsell it's a logical progression, and as he himself puts it: “People should be steering buildings much the same as driving cars or piloting planes.”  In fact, researchers in his department are currently developing new algorithms for centralised and decentralised building control systems, basing their solution on algorithms used in the aerospace industry.

One of Counsell's achievements during the 1990s was the development of CELECT,  a novel control and communications framework for ELM and EDR which was successfully applied to electric heating systems and has since become recognised in the SAP procedure in the UK building regulations – a theme which Counsell stresses can be key to the success of new technologies and products.  “The building industry is not a free market,” he explains. “It's a partly regulated market, and the building regulations should be part of the business plan for any new product.”  Counsell suggests getting engaged with the BRE as quickly as possible, to “reduce the risk” of developing something which may not meet industry standards.  It can take up to 10 years to get a new product – e.g. a component for a boiler – from concept stage to final approval, but only five years if the company talks to the BRE right from the start. 

As well as helping to develop industry standards, Counsell's work for BRE brings together products and technologies with performance assessment methodologies, promoting best practice and innovation in the building industry, as well as looking at demand-side management systems and building-integrated renewable power generation.

Power over Ethernet

One of the BRE Centre's most promising projects is a new Power over Ethernet (PoE) system.  Counsell explains that in the typical building, electricity is converted to and from AC to DC a number of times in order to power devices, but with PoE, low-voltage DC power is supplied using standard Category 5 Ethernet cables – the same wire used for data transmission – to power LED-based screens and laptops and, in the future, LED lights and other appliances used in BEMs.  The BRE Centre is planning to spin out a business to market the system, which Counsell believes will have a major impact on all sorts of buildings, making it possible for small companies to install and customise their own power networks at the same time as their information systems infrastructure, since the low-voltage (less than 50 volts) cabling can be installed without the need for qualified electricians.  “It's better to invest in high-speed cable,” says Counsell, “than 240V wiring and sockets that can cost up to £150 per socket.”

The BRE Centre is in partnership with BRE, Siemens and Arup to develop its PoE system, which would have such great potential in energy efficient offices and in developing countries as a low-cost  solution to power computer and lights – devices which are much more important in the Third World than heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems, which consume most of the power in industrialised countries.

As well as using PoE for LED lighting, the BRE Centre is also involved in an EPSRC-funded project with the University of Newcastle, using PoE for new “smart pervasive sensor networks and controls,” including assisted-working solutions for “more human” energy-management systems for office buildings. 


Is advanced always advanced?

The human factor is a critical aspect of any building when it comes to managing heat, light and power, and this is one of Counsell's chief concerns in his work for the BRE Centre – not just to make our homes and offices more comfortable and reduce energy wastage but also to improve our productivity.

As well as developing intelligent systems to ensure basic comfort, using algorithms based on similar systems used in the aerospace industry, the BRE Centre is developing methods to assess the controllability of buildings – a concept which is growing more important for climate-adaptive buildings which have to be designed with controllability in mind.

“We want to develop a control system as sophisticated as the control systems in planes,” says Counsell, “to achieve the same advances in building control that we have seen in recent years with fuel-injection engines, for example.”

Many academics and people in the industry don't like the idea of centralised building control, as if it's too 'Big Brother,' but the CELECT field trials showed that if it works, people “absolutely adore it,” says Counsell.  The primary issue for Counsell is that many so-called “advanced” systems simply don't work, and if they don't work, people tend to interfere with the system, switching things on and off and changing the settings, so they perform even worse.  The key, says Counsell, is to understand requirements and deliver what the customer wants – not introduce a “crude and simple” system that could actually make the building less energy-efficient and less comfortable.  For example, he asks, what's the point of having thermostatic control if you put the thermometer over a radiator?  “The people who install systems in planes and cars are highly skilled, trained individuals, and we need to establish the same level of expertise in the installation of building systems,” he adds.


When it comes to ELM methods, Counsell says we're only beginning to see these emerge – and there are still lots of problems to solve.  For example, one challenge is how to balance demand and supply 24 hours a day, using active-load control and storage (for power and heat).  The major questions, says Counsell, are how to size the system and how to control it, then how to assess the stability of the system and balance the load.  “The methodologies are starting to emerge, but this is a long-term objective,” says Counsell.  “There has been a lot of research and development, but the big challenge for the researchers still remains: How do we guarantee power demand and supply matching when we don’t know what the demand is likely to be or what the nature of the future supply will be?”  Faced with this “massive uncertainty,” Counsell says we need some kind of  governor for energy supply and demand matching

Market forces

Thanks to his experience in industry, Counsell has no illusions about the realities of market forces and recognises that it will not be easy to change people's habits or persuade business that it's worth it to invest in buildings designed to lower energy use.  “You can't buck the market,” he says.  “Education is a good thing but it's also a very slow process.”

One exception, he adds, is the IT industry.  Three years ago, Counsell gave a lecture on “expectations for reducing demand” and predicted that by 2015, IT companies would cut their energy consumption by 30 per cent – a target which they've already met.  “Ubiquity drives energy efficiency,” Counsell explains.  In other words, it's in the manufacturer's interest to improve the energy efficiency of its solutions.  When consumers shop for a laptop, for instance, they want the latest model – and longer-battery life  is one of the main criteria for their decision.  Similarly, Counsell says, short-term success in EDR and ELM will only be achieved if there is more value-add for the customer – for example, the recent announcement of Feed-In Tariffs.  Removing the need for expensive 240V sockets in buildings is potentially another big value-add to builders, home owners and landlords, says Counsell.


A new technological paradigm

For Counsell, when it comes to the “energy crisis,” the big issue is long-term investment. “The UK has historically invested in the infrastructure as if that is the only way to make any progress,” he says.  “That may provide a lot of benefits but also burdens us with higher taxation as well as higher energy bills.  And in the long term, the consumer pays, not the investors.”

In Counsell's opinion, there is too much spent “propping up what older generations have done,” rather than investing in proactive solutions like EDR and ELM, which would lead to significant savings for every consumer as well as reducing emissions and energy usage. 

Apart from building insulation and more efficient boiler initiatives, there is also too much spent on small-scale R&D projects on the energy demand side, says Counsell, who believes we need “some very large initiatives” to have a real impact on energy issues in future – creating jobs and stimulating economic growth without increasing the national debt.  BRE is ideally positioned to lead such initiatives.  “We have the history of what has been done in the past, unparalleled expertise in building energy utilisation and a degree of independence to iron out green wash,” says Counsell.   “BRE can also help provide advice to  government on future building regulations.” 

“If we don't control demand for power, there's no end to how much we'll have to spend on infrastructure,” says Counsell.  “That means we need a new technological paradigm – plus significant investment in research and development to deliver new solutions which work.”

And if Counsell is right, advanced controls for EDR and ELM  may be the “in things” in buildings in the very near future. 












"Constructive criticism". Science Scotland (Issue Nine)
Printed from on 03/07/20 11:14:41 PM

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