Has a long, unpredicted year taken a toll on people’s interest in energy efficiency, renewables, and smart buildings? In December 2020, Johnson Controls released the findings of its annual Energy Efficiency Indicator (EEI) survey. The research found that more than half of organizations plan to increase investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and smart building technology next year, comparable with investment trends after the 2010 recession.
The Industry Response
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to improve the health and safety of buildings, particularly by increasing their ability to operate under different conditions, both planned and unforeseen,” said Clay Nesler, vice president of global energy and sustainability at Johnson Controls. “Though the pandemic has altered how people are investing in their buildings, occupant health and energy efficiency continue to be top of mind, and we anticipate these investments will be a priority in 2021 as more people return to shared spaces.”
Michael Ellis, executive vice president and chief customer and chief digital officer at Johnson Controls, added that digital offerings that integrate into existing systems are increasing in importance for organizations planning 2021 spending. The majority of facility managers — 85% of them — said that the desire to reduce energy costs for their facility was a very important driver of their willingness to invest in new technologies. In fact, a quarter of organizations said that they planned to replace HVAC systems before end-of-life.
And manufacturers are poised to meet the growing interest. Francis Dietz, vice president of Public Affairs for AHRI (Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute), said that HVAC manufacturers have continually innovated to develop new technologies that can make HVAC equipment and products as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. He added that this has not taken away from the products’ abilities to enhance customers’ health, safety, comfort, and productivity.
“As new technologies are developed in the area of renewable energy, our member companies are using them to create equipment that uses them, whether it be solar, biofuels, or advanced energy storage,” he said.
Energy efficiency and emission reductions have taken center stage in the United States’ energy policies, he said, and numerous innovations will help meet the challenges of increasing sustainability, including “geothermal and thermal heat pumps, solar water heaters, advanced zone control technologies, energy storage technologies, advances in commercial refrigeration technologies, variable frequency drives, advanced fans and motors, multi-stage compressors, and many more.”
Dietz does not see the trending interest in greener technology going away anytime soon, either, as homeowners and building owners are continually seeing a need to reduce the environmental impact while ensuring continued comfort, safety, and productivity.
Effects Of COVID-19
The EEI study offered a look at how the pandemic might have influenced energy usage and people’s planned 2021 investments in energy efficiency, renewables, and smart building tech. For example, the study found that facility energy use dropped surprisingly little during the pandemic, with less than 10% of facilities reducing energy use more than 20%. The report also found that 79% of facility managers have already or are planning to increase air filtration, three-quarters have already or are planning to install an air treatment system, and 72% have already or are planning to increase outdoor air ventilation rates.
“In September, 63% said that protecting health and safety of building occupants was extremely or very important during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Nesler. “More than 60% plan to install air treatment solutions, increase ventilation rates, improve air filtration, and recommission building systems and equipment. The priority being given to improving indoor air quality, and reducing energy costs, represents a significant opportunity for contractors.”
Smart Building Technology
Eighty-one percent of survey respondents explained that part of their desire to invest in energy efficiency, renewables, or smart building tech was due to their desire to increase the flexibility of their facilities to quickly respond to a variety of emergency conditions.
“Smart buildings are an increasing priority, with over half integrating multiple building systems in the past year,” said Nesler. “Especially relevant for contractors is that 25% of organizations plan to integrate smart building equipment with other building technology systems in the coming year.” Just under 80% of respondents said they believe data analytics and machine learning will have an extremely or very significant impact on buildings. The 2020 survey found that funding for facility improvements increasingly came from internal capital budgets (71%), energy services agreements (24%), and economic stimulus and recovery funds (20%).
Interest in net-zero buildings is also growing, as 70% of organizations said they are very or extremely likely to have one or more facilities that are nearly zero, net zero, or positive energy or carbon status in the next 10 years. This is 7% higher than results from the 2019 survey.
“One of the trends we see is electrification, with 29% of organizations planning to replace fossil fuel space/water heating equipment with heat pump technology over the next 12 months,” said Nesler.
In 2020, 63% of organizations invested in on-site renewable energy, which was 22% more than the organizations that had plan to invest in the technology, according to the 2019 survey.
Further, two-thirds of organizations are very or extremely likely to have one or more facilities able to operate off the grid in the next 10 years — an increase of 3% from 2019. Additionally, 63% of organizations invested in onsite renewable energy in 2020, a 22% increase from the organizations that said they were planning to in the 2019 study.