Drupal as an Energy Conservation Measure

BACKGROUND: Recently, Penn State posted an article describing the awesome efforts and success achieved by the Office of Physical Plant (OPP). They have mastered the art of energy management and environmental systems control. Getting all buildings on all campuses so electricity, lighting, plumbing, ventilation, air conditioning and other environmental systems can be monitored and controlled remotely, and in real time, is no small task. It requires teams of engineers and trained technicians involved in the design, construction and operation of facilities to apply a consistent policy over many years to get to this level of tech. The foresight of key management personnel and the dedicated service of all OPP employees have resulted in a world-class system for this world-class institution.

In 1995 an open standard was first published in the USA for Building Automation and Control Networks and it remains at the forefront of digital technology today. The standard is logically called BACnet and it defines an open communication protocol whereby devices from diverse vendors can communicate and coexist as one unified system. “Developed under the auspices of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), BACnet is an American national standard, a European standard, a national standard in more than 30 countries, and an ISO global standard.” It is actively maintained and updated by committee members from all over the world.

More recently, Energy Dashboards of various forms have been developed by many vendors to give building occupants some insight into the buildings where they live and work. The dashboards can play a substantial role for owners focused on green building council recognition and the accrual of LEEDs points. Such dashboards can allow building owners, occupants and Internet users everywhere to get a glimpse to the inner workings (and hopefully effectiveness) of the world’s premier high-performance green buildings. These dashboards can be found in trophy buildings with fat construction budgets and are used to drive the hype.

No doubt, ‘it is possible that setting forth a positive image may be the only inherent benefit of dashboards’. Yet, there seems credible evidence that such dashboards have also been applied successfully to facilitate energy competitions and save money. Even a CMU study shows that by giving users access to some data from miniscule energy management systems they are willing to change their behavior. Regardless of the prominence or size of the dashboard, there are two significant problems that prevent their widespread adoption. They are costly to implement, and are underutilized when they are.

Energy Dashboards are costly because each one needs to be purchased, installed, and customized. Each building requires custom data and graphics that try to awe users and inform them in a manner that incites improved behavior. The second problem is that once even the best dashboards are implemented they are not used very much. Owners, occupants and users at large are just plain busy. They have either their jobs at the office or roles at home, so continually going out of their way to check up on dashboard sites is just not a priority. So, physical plant people are rightly skeptical when approached by rep’s for Energy Dashboard companies. Especially they if they pitched as an ECM! ENERGY CONSERVATION MEASURE (ECM): ECMs are installed as part of new constructions projects and/or building renovation projects with the idea that the investment in this tech will have an eventual payoff. ECMs lie at the heart of federal and state managed performance contracting programs, and may include such things as lighting upgrades, solar panels, ground source heat pumps, etc. In Pennsylvania the Guaranteed Energy Savings Act (GESA) defines an ECM like this… “Energy Conservation Measure (ECM) - An individual energy improvement item that an ESCO will propose. Typical ECMs would be lighting upgrades and installation of low-flow water valves. And an ESCO is define like this … “Energy Services Company (ESCO) - Service providers who enter into the GESA contract. DGS has pre-qualified a certain number of ESCOs, and these are the only ones eligible for participation in Commonwealth GESAs.” When energy dashboards in their present form are added to ESCO projects they can add substantially to the cost, and remain underutilized. This reduces the overall effectiveness of the ESCO project. Therefore you rarely encounter Energy Dashboards on ESCO type projects because they detract from its overall value.

It stands to reason however, that if the costs of Energy Dashboards can be substantially reduced, and at the same time their use exponentially increased, then the dashboard itself might actually increase the overall effectiveness of the ECM(s). The dashboard “usage” can easily be measured, such as number of hits per day. And, looking beyond the realm of just enhancing an ESCO project, what if a ‘new’ ECM could be applied very easily in a cost effective manner at an institution-wide level and it worked? I think the ECM not only would be adopted into an ECSO’s bag of tricks, they might even go back and offer to upgrade their completed projects ‘for free’ since it would improve the performance history of their already completed projects. Yep … this kind of technology would be ‘disruptive’, because ESCO’s may want to do it to increase their current earnings, while owners may want to do it to increase their current savings!

The ‘ideal’ solution then is both free and pervasive. So, this is where we introduce Drupal.

Even though BACnet is a significant portion of the Smart Grid connection to commercial buildings, few people, even in academia, have heard of it. Likewise, very few people using PSU facilities have ever heard of BACnet nor its success as an open protocol, yet it is fundamental to PSU-OPP’s success at energy management.

At a large scale, Drupal is said to power 2% of the world websites. This amounts to millions (if not billions) of users per day. Yet, what percent of the people accessing www. whitehouse.gov or www. psu.edu ever heard of Drupal? I’d guess something on the order of .02% or smaller. Whether they know it or not “large organizations are increasingly turning to Drupal to manage web sites and content structures because the open source platform can solve a host of problems right “out-of-the-box”. And, Drupal, as a content management platform is free to download and use

Both BACnet and Drupal are now pervasive in their respective fields. In the case of PSU buildings, BACnet is in every building on every campus statewide. Perhaps all PSU branch campus’s have not embraced using Drupal for their respective campus’ main website, but they probably know that University Park has!

Drupal has not been around as long as BACnet. Drupal’s prominence became notable with DeanSpace in 2003. This was not a publication of an ASHRAE standard such as BACnet. Rather, as a developing community “…Drupal coincides with a movement that values thoughtful collaboration over aggressive competition.” Today 60% of all Internet use is from mobile devices. Mobile ready websites are considered to be mission-critical. Penn State, be it campuses, colleges, departments, offices or institutes, if they want to be relevant need to be responsive (accessible to all internet users). Drupal is mobile ready now, and with the pending release of D8 will be responsive out of the box.

The BACnet module for Drupal enables the use of Drupal as an energy conservation measure. I’m sure this statement seems like a stretch to all facility mangers and ESCO’s alike. Regardless of how you define or value energy conservation measures, the fact is, both BACnet and Drupal are relevant today, and they can be combined for good purposes. The BACnet module for Drupal takes BACnet data and displays it in Drupal websites. It transforms existing websites into energy dashboards. When displayed as real-time blocks in existing websites, all the user’s to that page will see it. It doesn’t have to dominate the website theme or be the primary message of the page. It can be used to add a new dimension to an existing website. It can create new visual interest, demonstrate new technologies and enhance the overall user experience. Even if the BACnet block’s message is subliminal, and users don’t read it, the CMU study shows that that first group, who knew they were being monitored but received no information about their energy consumption, reduced their overall energy consumption by 7%. The second group, that received information through an energy dashboard that collected and displayed plug-load data in real time, reduced overall energy consumption by 13%.

Personally I’m not of the opinion that there is really much value in monitoring plug-loads, which was the focus of the CMU study. It seems to me like it would be a lot of effort and expense for relatively small savings, especially if trying to scale it to epic university wide proportions. Since Drupal websites can be setup in a manner to be contextually aware of its interactions with users, locations, and other applications, its not that Drupal couldn’t handle the task. Or, if epic proportions to you means global application, like the Smart Grid, Drupal sites could be configured as proxies to smartly utilize that kind of data/traffic as well. It’s just that, like lighting upgrades, the ‘low hanging fruit’ is a good starting point, especially in the case for those institutions where the use of BACnet and Drupal already exist in abundance. Simply by making users aware of some cool points or usage patterns, the integration of BACnet and Drupal can itself become a “disruptive technology”, save some millions ($) and be the next big news for open data initiatives everywhere. In no small way, such initiatives can help pave the way today for Penn State research in Building our Digital Futures.