Energy management during COVID-19

How to maximise building efficiency and meet the demands of health and safety during times of reduced occupancy.

How to maximise building efficiency and meet the demands of health and safety during times of reduced occupancy.

By Naomi Rich, Consultant at EcoAct 

Image: Eco-Act

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented so many challenges to the way we operate as a society. This has naturally had an impact on many companies and the way that they operate. It seems that these challenges – working with social distancing, remote working, personal protective equipment and commuting to name a few – will continue to impact the way that we work for some time.

Some of the companies we work with have been increasingly looking to reduce the operating costs of their buildings left empty as a consequence of the lockdown. For the companies that have kept buildings open and those looking to begin re-opening as COVID-19 related restrictions begin to ease, health and safety concerns must be prioritised while trying to maintain as efficient a building as possible.

How can increased health and safety measures impact energy efficiency?

As COVID-19 is an airborne disease, the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) have released guidelines on how buildings should be operated at present to maintain clean air. This includes continuously running air handling units on full fresh air supply, with a reduced speed for when the building is unoccupied, running toilet extracts continuously and disabling heat recovery devices which are normally installed to reduce a site’s energy consumption.

All this means that buildings can see their energy consumption increase even if they are unoccupied as large energy-using equipment (also referred to as “plant”) is required longer than usual. This is particularly the case when planning to reoccupy buildings, which may take a few weeks of preparation. In addition, many sites will have building plant running at a reduced setting rather than fully off to reduce potential maintenance issues if trying to start up from cold later down the line.

How can we use building systems and data to negate this impact?

Our experience of auditing the energy performance of large offices, hotels, department stores etc. often reveals aging Building Management Systems (BMS) that are not providing the expected control to the systems. For example, we have found air handling units that stated on the BMS they were switched off out of hours but were still running during night audits, and systems indicating incorrect supply and return temperatures and quantities of recirculation. Therefore, undertaking an audit of your BMS, and checking against your building operations is key to meeting energy efficiency and health and safety requirements.

COVID-19 has really highlighted the importance of having quality data to be able to inform wider management teams about the impact of business decisions on energy consumption and to maximise savings. For example, finance teams often assume that an unoccupied building is fully switched off and bank on a significant energy (& financial) saving. This is often not the case so regular review and clear reporting of building consumption can help keep everybody better informed of realistic savings in order to avoid difficult discussions further down the line.

Half-hourly data can also enable us to be reactive and maximise efficiency. For example, one of our clients completed their half-hourly gas AMR (automatic meter reading) programme shortly before lockdown began. This has enabled them to see how effectively their stores have been locked down and where adjustments need to be made, which would have been impossible had this programme not been completed.

As buildings begin to re-open, we expect to see buildings operating at reduced hours and occupancy. Data can also highlight where changes can be made to maximise the efficiency of an operational building running below usual capacity. A large office in one of our client’s portfolios found that its March gas consumption was significantly higher than needed considering the reduced operating hours and occupancy of the building as staff moved to work from home. The granular energy reporting they have in place enabled the controls to be reviewed to avoid heating areas unnecessarily. Regular reviews of the energy data should similarly be made to identify higher than expected consumption as areas are re-occupied.

What if I don’t have half-hourly data?

While P272 (the mandatory regulation which affects how energy usage is recorded and requires half-hourly metering and billing) has meant that many sites now have accurate data available to them, at least for monthly billing, in large portfolios we still find that many buildings have not yet been made half-hourly. This means that in many cases meters have had estimated consumption for months or even years and so the full energy reduction impact of lockdown cannot be seen by the business.

However, COVID-19 is providing us with the opportunity and indeed the motivation to take a step back and review sites without AMR. This means being able to prioritise the sites that have the most estimated data and are least likely to have their meters read without an intervention, enabling us to find ways to work more efficiently in the future by taking readings from these sites once we are able, updating them to half-hourly metering or looking into other ways to improve the data.

We have also encountered a store which had connectivity issues with its half-hourly meters resulting in readings not being communicated. This was identified quickly because it was clear that the half-hourly data was not reflecting the store’s closure. Manual meter readings were taken instead, enabling the store to be billed at the appropriate level, thus avoiding a significantly larger energy bill than anticipated at a difficult time.

What about the rest of my portfolio?

COVID-19 has provided a unique opportunity to identify possible improvements to buildings to increase their usefulness and efficiency. It may be worth improving your systems across your full portfolio of buildings. This could mean installing a new BMS or expanding your existing one to include additional energy-using equipment or remote functionality.

However, you will still need to take a granular view of individual buildings and zones in order to ensure maximum efficiency. For example, one building may have areas with different operating hours, so providing conditioning to these areas via split systems may be beneficial to avoid having to run the full plant, as might a review of lighting control systems and the use of automatic lighting (e.g PIRs).

What should I do now?

While COVID-19 has caused significant issues for many businesses, it is important to understand the expected impact on energy bills while ensuring that health and safety advice is followed. Review your BMS, review your energy data and make sure that both are providing you with what you expect to see.

About EcoAct

EcoAct is a privately held international sustainability consultancy and project developer, headquartered in Paris, with 120 employees in offices across France, the United Kingdom, Spain, the United States and Kenya. The company has unmatched depth and breadth in delivering solutions to enable businesses to reduce their carbon emissions while driving commercial performance.

EcoAct has undertaken carbon reduction and sustainability projects for some of the world’s leading brands while also developing and partnering with carbon offset, biodiversity and economic development programmes across Africa, Asia, China and South America. EcoAct is a CDP gold partner, a founding member of ICROA, a strategic partner in the implementation of the Gold Standard for the Global Goals and reports to the UN Global Compact.

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