Today buildings use 65 to 70 percent of all alternating current (AC) electricity produced and distributed by public utilities in the United States. These same facilities also use a majority of digital electronic devices that are inherently direct current (DC) powered, creating the need for AC power to be converted to DC at the device level to power equipment such as electronic lighting ballasts, LEDs, lighting sensors and controls, HVAC controls, variable speed motors and an array of information technology and telecom equipment. These conversions result in a significant loss of electricity and wasted energy.
Making the switch to DC in D.C.
Up until about eight years ago, there were no industry standards for the adoption of safe DC power distribution in commercial and residential buildings. But in 2008, dozens of equipment manufacturers, architecture and design firms, electrical and mechanical engineering firms, sustainability and energy consultants, energy providers, utilities, building owners, developers, contractors, code and regulatory officials, government, academics and other industry professionals joined to form EMerge Alliance, a nonprofit, open-industry association, to formulate standards.
“Smart grid systems and building automation have changed the way the industry works, and LEDs were really a tipping point because they changed the majority type of power these buildings require,” explains Brian Patterson, president of California-based EMerge. “The reality is it is no longer just an AC-power world.”
Patterson recalls one of his first trips to the annual Greenbuild Convention and Expo: “I was explaining a scenario using DC power and how clients were switching to it and products too with electric cars and more solar power and one of the guys kind of chuckled at me and said ‘the world is an AC power world; people aren’t going to rewire buildings just to get better efficiency.’ I politely replied and said, ‘odds are, someday, you’ll come back to Greenbuild and it will be powered mostly by renewable energy, predominantly in the form of DC power.'”
The following year, Patterson proposed an idea to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). “I said ‘why not talk the talk, walk the walk and demonstrate to people that we can really power the show with renewable energy,'” he says.
At Greenbuild 2014 in New Orleans, Patterson and his team successfully powered 10 to 12 booths at the show with a solar-powered microgrid that went on-and-off-grid periodically without interruption to the booths, proving the resiliency of the system.
“This year in Washington, D.C., we’re doing it again, but bigger,” says Patterson. “This year we’re taking a more visible approach and much of the equipment is going to be on the show floor and really get the understanding of how the power is being collected, converted, controlled and distributed.”
Engaging the building community
After spending most of his career in the consumer, auto and telecom electronics industries, before EMerge, Patterson worked for Armstrong World Industries, developing embedded electronic technology in building materials. “We came up with a way of distributing low-voltage power in building systems at Armstrong,” he recounts. “The architects and various companies we were working with decided we really needed to standardize the technology and it was going to take more than a few companies – we needed the whole industry engaged. So in 2008, myself, John Lamprinakos, Jim Sanford, Bruce Graham and Paul Savage started an open standards group called EMerge and have been working on it ever since.”
Since inception it has been EMerge’s goal to develop standards integrating infrastructures, power, controls and devices into common microgrid platforms – building level microgrids – to facilitate the hybrid use of AC and DC power throughout buildings, resulting in greater flexibility, efficiency, resiliency, economy, safety and improved sustainability. Today, there are more than 100 organizations involved nationwide and EMerge ensures that these standards deliver:
-Required solutions based on market requirements and ecosystem capability
-Buyer assurance with products evaluated against standards and registered for public view
-Increased supply chain choices in the value chain that spans the needs of different building applications
EMerge has already issued standards for occupied spaces and the growing data/telecom center market with standards for whole buildings, including residential and other building applications nearing completion and adoption. “The data center industry has the potential to surpass the lighting industry in terms of consumption in the near future,” explains Patterson. “With LEDs, lighting has actually been coming down in power consumption in most buildings, but with more apps on personal devices, GPS, cloud systems and so much more, the amount of energy needed to power data center equipment is skyrocketing. We expect, over the next five years or so, data centers will transform to more and more DC power.”
After merging with DC Power Partners, EMerge set the data/telecom center standard at 380VDC. “This is the global sweet spot for standardized components with the best balance of economics and safety,” explains Patterson. “Power distribution at 380VDC offers enhanced distribution capabilities, lower equipment costs and improved sustainability from reduced copper and equipment use.”
The Internet of electricity
As more industries make the shift to DC power, Patterson says EMerge has a vision and it’s an information highway for electricity, similar to the Internet. “Our goal is to eventually create a mesh network of transactive electrical power systems,” he says. “Today, the network of power is a unidirectional, centrally generated model distributed out in the form of AC power from major plants and generating stations. What EMerge wants to do is to form a network where much of the power is actually created at end-user sites.”
Patterson says if this could happen across the nation, where facilities achieve net-zero power by gene
rating their own energy, the results would be astounding. “We could realistically produce 65 percent of the entire amount of electricity used this way, but you’re looking at a major shift from the centrally generated model,” he says.
It may be a major transition, but Patterson points to the data/telecom market as a leading example of this model at work. “It’s already happening with the Internet,” he says. “Today, about 68 percent of data created is in a distributed fashion from laptops to smartphones and all kinds of wireless devices. Our goal is to create a network much like the Internet to do the same for the combined use of ac and dc power and allow for the transactive management of electricity.”
This might seem like a lofty goal, but Patterson assures the market transformation is already well underway and EMerge Alliance is helping to make it possible by paving the way in the adoption of safe, secure, resilient hybrid AC/DC power microgrids.
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