Back in the 60s, a famous Canadian media philosopher coined the phrase “the medium is the message” to suggest that the delivery technology is in itself what provides meaning. In a variation on that theme, Cisco and Schneider met at the Earth Rangers Centre for Sustainable Technology this month to demonstrate how technology can not only create a story, but also serve as the medium and the message. In the Earth Rangers case, the story is about using technology to push the boundaries on what is possible in environmental practice, with advanced connectivity acting as both an enabler and a new communications vehicle for advancing the sustainability agenda. The story is also about explaining the importance of collaboration in achievement of this goal.
Home of the Earth Rangers kid’s conservation organization, the Earth Rangers Centre for Sustainable Technology (ERC) was built in 2004 as a showcase in sustainable design featuring thermal mass construction in its heavy concrete structure, radiant heating and cooling, earth tube ventilation, on-site wastewater treatment and a green roof. Designed to be 63% more efficient than the norm in the National Energy Code, the ERC won LEEDs Gold status from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2006, and after the addition of geo-thermal heating and solar panels that generate electricity for the centre and the grid, was able to operate with 90% greater efficiency than in its original baseline.
In many ways the precocious child of the green building movement, the ERC early on had reached the limits of what was possible with physical infrastructure. In 2009, the organization conducted an extensive energy audit, and in its search for additional sources of energy savings moved into the world of building automation. Described by the ERC as the “brains and muscle” of its building “body,” the Andover Continuum Building Automation system from Schneider Electric now controls lighting, HVAC and access control systems throughout the structure. According to Andy Schonberger, Cisco business development manager and former Earth Rangers staff member, the Schneider platform works with thousands of sensors, actuators and controls that monitor energy, water and thermal usage, feeding data back through 300 access points to the building’s electrical and mechanical systems for optimization of resource consumption. The ERC also connected ION Enterprise to the building automation system to introduce control, and deployed Schneider’s StruxureWare Energy Operation, a power monitoring system that collects performance data on individual systems, as well as the Resource Advisor reporting portal to deliver visibility into these, with an ultimate goal of identifying additional targets for conservation efforts and tracking progress towards on these initiatives. In electrical systems, for example, the centre has managed to reduce energy usage in the 66,000 square foot facility to under 9kw/square foot. In January 2013, the ERC’s electricity bill (net of revenue for solar energy fed back into the grid under Ontario’s FIT program) was $20,000, a respectable achievement given the facility’s high energy requirements – for heat lamps, for example, to maintain environmental temperatures for exotic reptile and other species. Beyond conservation activities, programmability in building automation systems allows data to be used in a variety of ways – as the basis for introducing ‘what if’ scenarios for optimization of environmental conditions, or in predictive analytics to support asset maintenance activities.
By 2012, the ERC had won LEEDS Platinum, with what Earth Rangers executive director Peter Kendall described in the accompanying video as “the highest scores that we know of granted for an existing building.” This victory left the centre with an enviable problem: how to find more low hanging fruit. To find additional sources of efficiency improvements, the ERC turned to its data centre (which consumes 12 percent of total building energy), replacing end-of-life hardware with high efficiency, highly virtualized servers in Cisco’s Unified Computing System, Cisco networking and WiFi and a pool of shared thin clients, which, in some configurations, can achieve up to 85% in energy savings over traditional PCs.
While it supports all building and business systems, the ERC’s data centre is a relatively modest affair with four servers in two racks and one CRAC unit for cooling. As a showcase for Cisco technology, implementation in a more data-intensive environment might have proved more instructional. However, as Rick Huijbregts, VP of industry transformation for Cisco Canada, explained, Cisco was interested in partnership with Earth Rangers since “they are always pushing the envelope on sustainability” and Cisco keen on establishing technology’s role in the sustainability agenda: “technology and sustainability have become synonymous,” he explained, and “technology is the main tool for business or governments to address major business issues, environmental challenges and [issues related to] socio-demographic shifts.”
The ERC meet up also offered Cisco and Schneider an opportunity to announce a made-in-Canada partnership aimed at joint marketing, business development, solution creation and technology integration across verticals, beginning with building automation and data centre solutions for smart community deployments. According to Alan Taaffe, Schneider Canada director of offer marketing and business development for the buildings business, this new strategic relationship was born out of two considerations – Schneider’s shift in focus towards energy management, and a shared vision with Cisco on the future of cities and communities in Canada that involves creation of new building and technology architectures. This vision is a data-driven one, in which more information acts as the source of innovation in energy and other efficiency initiatives.
In Taaffe’s view, timely information-based analysis and action can be stymied by networking bottlenecks: “in a lot of cases, information integration can get hung up in the network. If you have the wrong router, the wrong switch, this can completely derail what you are trying to achieve.” With our growing, systemic reliance on transmissions of ever increasing volumes of data from real time streams, the networking issue will no doubt become more rather than less critical. For Schneider, the potential to work with next generation networking technology in the Cisco portfolio – to perform simulations and testing to validate system reliability in advance of customer deployment – has served as an impetus to partnering. As Taaffe explained, Schneider’s ability to integrate data from multiple, disparate systems is based on a “philosophy called EcoStruxure – a solution-based architecture that integrates Ethernet-enabled devices.” To accommodate data from any device, this architecture is “non-proprietary,” Schneider Electric Canada president Daniel Péloquin pointed out, and the company has programmed a “smart widget” that can be plugged into building automation systems for device discovery and data collection. Reliable connectivity, then, is a key input to the effective utilization of the Schneider platform. Interestingly, both new partners stressed the complimentary nature of their energy management portfolios, with Huijbregts describing Cisco EnergyWise energy monitoring capabilities (built through the acquisition of JouleX), as the “glue that links the Cisco and Schneider systems” and Taaffe describing this product as the “last mile” which has the potential to connect devices at more fine grained levels. The ERC, for example, now monitors energy consumption at the circuit level, but is looking towards the capture of additional information through a future implementation of EnergyWise.
Ultimately, the ERC energy story is about the capture of environmental building data, delivered through advanced networking to a building management system that resides in updated infrastructure, to produce new efficiencies in energy conservation. It’s also about accelerating momentum in this area through transition of an ad hoc relationship into a more formal partnership between vendors looking to tap growing market interest in the application of technology to sustainable building: Péloquin explained, “as opposed to acting in an opportunistic way with specific applications, we realize there is a market here and so have decided to start working on that through a concerted approach.”
But the ERC’s new implementation covered more than building automation, extending to the adoption of a Cisco Telepresence system that is currently connected to Cisco’s head office and to Schneider’ Eco Lounge, a facility devoted to the visualization of the “next generation of energy efficiency” technology in different industrial settings – a water plant or data centre, for example. Going forward, Kendall hopes the Telepresence system will also perform an educational function, supplementing current outreach media, such as the ERC’s web presence and YTV programming aimed at a younger generation that is attuned to new, interactive forms of collaboration. In this way, technology acts as the creator of the connected building narrative – the message and its medium for distribution to students, building operators, technologists and the sustainability community more broadly.