[Blog #5] Final, final blog

According to the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (GlobalABC), the buildings sector accounted for 38% of total global carbon emissions that are energy-related in 2020, including emissions from building construction processes. This alarming percentage has increased the urgency to decarbonize these buildings we classify and internalize as essential, as they are places around which we center our personal and professional lives. In addition to that, adverse effects of climate change have ramped up in recent years, exemplified by global warming, extreme weather events, and many others. In order to further efforts in decarbonizing buildings, methods in decreasing carbon emissions associated with buildings have emerged from around the globe. The OpenBlue Central Utility Plant (CUP) software, developed at Johnson Controls, Inc. (JCI), is one answer to this challenge, which takes a unique approach of predictive cost optimization to reduce utility costs incurred in operating a building or central plant. By optimizing utility cost savings associated with operating important building functions, such as heating and cooling systems, CUP is able to observe results in electricity savings, resource usage, demand, and emissions; this, therefore, helps buildings and those living and working in these buildings to take a step further towards global decarbonization, while still prioritizing human comfort such that they can continue their day-to-day activities unperturbed.

Climate change has never been something that can be defined within the bounds of normalcy. It has always diverged from predicted effects, as observed in recent extreme weather events around the world. I have always thought that speeding up decarbonization is important, but I have never thought about it from the perspective of buildings; I am not even the most familiar with the challenges faced by anyone trying to decarbonize the buildings sector. 

I live in an apartment building, go to buildings or halls on campus for my education, and go buy groceries at the grocery store; being in and out of buildings has become the norm as human development advances. However, it was surprising for me to see how removed I was from the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in the building I occupy, for example; I only notice its effects and how much human comfort for occupants is defined through these HVAC systems, as one of the many metrics available for comfort. HVAC systems are such an integral part of buildings. For this reason, it makes it challenging to try to decarbonize this aspect of a building and to reduce the environmental footprint of a building. Today, it is even more difficult to decarbonize buildings due to climate change. For example, climate change results in more extreme weather events; this will, in turn, increase the need for more heating when the weather gets colder than ever and more cooling when it gets too hot to the point that you can grill food on the sidewalk. The need for more heating and cooling will force the HVAC systems to work overtime, which is definitely not environmentally friendly as it will correspond to an increase in carbon emissions. It is for this reason that the tradeoff between decarbonization and human comfort (and to some extent, human safety) comes up in talks of decarbonizing buildings. How do we retrofit a building such that it will still cool or warm its occupants without the occupants noticing a change? How do we account for the increase in building HVAC operations while trying to reduce emissions? And, even if we did manage to reduce emissions by using more efficient equipment, how will we manage the network of equipment inside a building to work as efficiently as possible such that its occupants will not bear the brunt of increase in cost? 

These tradeoffs between occupant comfort, safety, and environmental footprint (through carbon emissions metrics) have been the biggest thought occupying my mind after my internship. It is a difficult question to answer and there is no easy answer. This dilemma is what made me really amazed at what Johnson Controls, Inc. (JCI) is doing with their OpenBlue Central Utility Plant (CUP) software, as this dilemma is exactly what they are trying to address. Trying to operate with the occupants in mind, they aim to green HVAC systems through predictive cost-based optimization, making the systems operate as efficiently as possible with its current configuration, taking into account all of the equipment currently installed in the system. It is even more amazing that they are still in, arguably, its early stages; there are so many applications that this software can be used for, and it is amazing to see how much the team strives to improve on the software each day such that it will be more beneficial for the customer and the environment. 

I am grateful that my internship at JCI has opened my eyes to the inner workings of the systems in my building. I have learned that, even if the looming problem of climate change approaches closer and closer, people are still striving to mitigate this through small-scale efforts all the way to large-scale efforts; in the context of my internship, the team works by solving inefficiencies in equipment operations at the small-scale, thereby improving overall building efficiency, increasing utility cost and electricity savings, and reducing energy usage and carbon emissions at the large-scale. Being involved in such great work is an experience that I will forever be grateful for, as I aim to get more involved in climate change mitigation efforts in the future.