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When all the low-hanging fruit is gone… what’s next?

“The technology is out there. We can achieve these goals, so let’s make sure we do everything we can.”


September 22, 2021
By Anthony Capkun

September 22, 2021 – “Building a better, decarbonized world means improving energy efficiency in all buildings, new and old.”

That’s the title of an article* published recently by Schneider Electric, which opens with the premise that energy waste is happening all around us, but we cannot truly tackle it unless we make the invisible visible.

Digital innovation is required for this to happen, says Schneider Electric, acknowledging that digital adoption happens to be one of the biggest barriers to action.

Confusion around investments to be made has caused many businesses “to delay decisions and wait for a miracle cure. This paralysis is part of the problem”, continues the article.

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I took this as an opportunity to speak with Schneider Electric’s Hugo Lafontaine, vice-president, Power Products & Digital Energy, with the aim of learning more about this paralysis, and ways around it.


ENERGY MANAGER CANADA: Whether it’s the spectre of climate change, government policy, or just saving costs, it makes sense to tackle energy waste. Now, according to the article, buildings account for almost a third of the world’s CO2 emissions by source; almost 40% when factoring in construction.

The solution, according to Schneider Electric, is to build new buildings better from the outset, and to retrofit existing ones so they become energy-efficient. If I read it right, the article suggests 82% of the energy waste in buildings remains untapped.

Pretty telling numbers, yet we have this paralysis problem. How is this paralysis being created? How is it being perpetuated?

HUGO LAFONTAINE: One of the main problems, I think, is that we have too many options today. In the old days, you would have maybe three parties who were the technology providers for buildings. Today, things are evolving at a pace that’s never been seen before in this industry. We’re asked to understand technologies that are beyond the grasp of many people (because they don’t have the technological background). As a consequence, and quite understandably, they’re anxious about choosing the wrong technology or the wrong service providers and failing.

Historically, saving energy was all about changing windows, upgrading lighting, and so on. But now, all that low-hanging fruit has been picked. The next level of saving energy requires a bit more finesse—a bit more understanding—and more of a whole-building solutions approach versus changing just a small part of the building.

I believe, fundamentally, this is why people are paralyzed; why we’re not moving forward as purposefully as we could. We’re still missing a comprehensive understanding, which only comes from reliable technical advisement and support.

That’s where you learn to rely on—and collaborate with—industry players who are coming to market with open solutions that help you develop a technology roadmap that evolves and adapts with changing needs and priorities.

ENERGY MANAGER CANADA: I’m glad you mentioned that word, roadmap, because it segues nicely into my next question. The article says:

We typically see a 30% reduction in energy usage, and similar reduction in operational costs, as a direct result of smart building technologies that improve sustainability, energy efficiency, and enable buildings to generate their own energy through solar power and microgrids and use it to power critical operations.

In thinking about onsite generation, microgrids, etc., I confess to feeling a little paralyzed, myself. But, if all the low-hanging fruit has already been picked, it stands to reason we should explore these other things. If we focus just on our existing building stock, what does their roadmap look like?

HUGO LAFONTAINE: There are several aspects to it. For starters, let’s be frank: the most emissions-friendly building is the one that does not get built. Your carbon footprint is zero.

Plus, we have a great portfolio of existing buildings that can be augmented with modern technologies, and there’s a huge array of them. Technologies like those for onsite generation, microgrids, really allow us to augment and amplify a building’s energy savings.

Take Schneider Electric HQ in Paris, which is an existing building, and it’s not even our own—we rent the space.

Everything we looked at doing from an energy management perspective needed to fit the term of the lease—which, in itself, can also cause paralysis. Decisions had to make financial sense for both the tenant and the building owner, so all the energy-saving adjustments we made in the first 5-10 years had to be recouped within the term of the lease.

When your scope stretches beyond the term, that’s when you need to identify the added value you’re delivering to the owner’s asset, to tenant experience, saving energy, etc. These facets are what will drive success and break the paralysis we see in the market.

ENERGY MANAGER CANADA: I’m pleased you mentioned tenants because, besides complying with government regulations, saving energy, etc., building owners and operators also have to cater to tenant desires. How does one balance their needs and wants against all of this other stuff?

HUGO LAFONTAINE: We will never really leverage all the technologies available, and never reach truly amazing energy efficiencies when we only do what the building code prescribes (minimum requirements). Yet that is precisely what engineers are trained to design, unless owners—and their tenants—demand their building surpasses minimum requirements. In fact, it is owners and their tenants who are really the ones driving the demand for better.

That’s why systems like LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), green neutrality requirements, and the like are surpassing the building code, which is simply not evolving fast enough.

These days, then, the low-hanging fruit is ensuring we align with the highest demand in terms of design, complexity, technology, etc. As you work toward achieving this, you focus on the tenant experience to ensure you’ve maximized the beneficial impact of changes to that asset, both from a people-centric perspective and from an operational perspective. It’s symbiotic, really.

ENERGY MANAGER CANADA: On a personal level, I’ve never entertained the idea of “smart” solutions for my own home because I didn’t like the idea of being married to just one vendor, one solutions provider. Has the market addressed people like me? That is, those who own and operate our buildings who also don’t want to feel boxed in?

HUGO LAFONTAINE: That is a big question… and I’ve got a big answer for it! In the past, you would select a vendor whose technology was proprietary, and then you would be married to them for, say, 25 years… but maybe it wasn’t a such a happy marriage. The relationship may have been stifling, because you didn’t necessarily get the best of what the market had to offer.

Thankfully, things have evolved. Now there’s open protocol, allowing numerous solutions from multiple vendors to operate within a building.

My best advice for property owners is to work with solutions providers who have an open mind, an open platform, and who will deliver the best of what’s out there.

As a building owner, you want access to all the new innovative start-ups with niche proptech. Covid has also shown us we’re able to adapt quickly to new technologies, like you and me doing this interview virtually. As a society, we are more open to the idea of being early adopters; we’ll take some risks to maximize people’s safety and comfort.

There’s no one who does everything in-house, so you want to be able to cherry-pick—this is the best hardware, the best software, the best provider, and so forth. You should demand that technology be open and interoperable, and that your consultants, designers and builders are aligned with your vision. As a property owner, that is your right.

ENERGY MANAGER CANADA: I’m glad to hear you are a proponent of open standards and interoperability, leading-edge technology, and for highlighting an owner’s right to demand them.

HUGO LAFONTAINE: Like many others out there, Schneider Electric wants to make the world a better place. We want to reduce everyone’s carbon footprint and, ultimately, achieve harmony between climate requirements and the owner/tenant experience. The technology is out there. We can achieve these goals, so let’s make sure we do everything we can.


* LINK FOR the article “Building a better, decarbonized world means improving energy efficiency in all buildings, new and old”.