Why We Need an Android of Energy and Buildings

In the beginning, we had machines. We plugged them in. They worked.

Life was good.

Then the machines got digital. Instead of knobs and buttons, they had backlit screens with numbers and icons, which gave them more features.

Life got better.

Then one day, the machines opened up. Instead of a dozen or so features, there were suddenly thousands of apps. Then tens and hundreds of thousands. Eventually millions. We’re doing things we couldn’t even imagine just a few years ago.

Phones?

Yes. But it’s also the future of energy.

The Android of Energy, coming soon to your building.

When phones went digital, the hardware became more capable. It became possible to build apps for them. But it was the next big step, when iOS and Android created whole ecosystems of developers around platforms, that really transformed a “phone” into something you can’t put down.

This transformation required a fundamental shift in thinking. When Symbian was the dominant mobile operating system for feature phones, it focused on mobile carriers’ hardware needs. Android and iOS, in turn, became the software developers’ platforms of choice. Nokia’s former CEO, Stephen Elop, said it best in his famous “Burning Platform” memo:

The battle of devices has now become a war of ecosystems, where ecosystems include not only the hardware and software of the device, but developers, applications, ecommerce, advertising, search, social applications, location-based services, unified communications and many other things. Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem.

Today we’re coming to a similar time in the energy industry. It is finally embracing the digital age of electronic controls and sensors and talking about Big Data, the Cloud, and Artificial Intelligence. Fundamentally, though, it’s still hardware-driven. From the biggest equipment manufacturers to freshly funded startups, everybody makes their own machines, and their software is there to support their hardware. This is an industry where software is still called “automation.” So even though some (and by no means all) manufacturers are opening up to outside developers, like Symbian and Nokia once did, most machines and energy systems do little more than what their original manufacturers intended.

Meanwhile, some big changes are coming:

  • The falling cost of renewable energy and storage batteries are making it cost effective to host microgrids that generate energy where it’s used.
  • Floods and fires are making microgrids more appealing to customers who need power when the transmission lines are down.
  • Microgrids are still expensive, though, so they will require intelligent control of energy use to be economical.
  • The cost of sensors have fallen so much, it’s now possible to have them everywhere in a building: temperature, humidity, and occupancy sensors can now be placed at every desk, office, and conference room.

Putting all this together, there is not just growth in the volume of data, but in their potential combinations together to create new kinds of applications. Once upon a time it was amazing to see a scheduled HVAC system. Nowadays, it seems amazing to be able to turn lights on and off with an iPad. But why doesn’t our office know where we are, what we’re using the space for (midday meeting vs. evening social hour), and automatically adjust the lighting and AC based on that — and current power pricing from the grid or availability from our building’s batteries and solar panels?

It can. It just needs to bring together several pieces of the puzzle: location, scheduling, room HVAC and lighting controls, and tie them to the utility grid or microgrid of solar panels and batteries. We’re used to these being on separate systems, so these kinds of applications seem “futuristic.” But once upon a time, digital cameras, text messaging, and web browsers were separate machines with their own software. Wouldn’t Instagram have seemed futuristic back then?

As it happened with phones, so it will happen again with energy. And not a moment too soon: Occupants want more comfortable, smarter spaces. Building owners need lower energy costs and higher returns. The public wants lower carbon emissions.

For that to happen, software, like people, just have to learn to work together.

And there’s a reason why I call it the Android and not iOS of Energy — read more about it here.