May. 14 2020

Intelligent urban infrastructure: a new ecosystem with smart buildings

Author : Thomas Brenner
- Executive Vice President, Siemens Ltd., China; General Manager of Smart Infrastructure, Siemens Greater China

Covid-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to city and infrastructure management. However, the application of big data, AI, 5G and other technologies in combatting the pandemic allows us to draw on the potential of digitization and intelligent technologies in managing cities. As China is accelerating the development of new infrastructure, the integration of infrastructure with AI, IoT and other advanced technologies will greatly drive the transformation and upgrading of the electricity grid, buildings, mobility and other sectors as part of the effort to build more efficient, resilient and livable smart cities.

As an essential part of a city, the intelligence of buildings is key to developing future smart cities. The spread of the epidemic has made “home” life the new normal. Whether it is to accompany families at home or actively participate in resuming work and production, buildings provide us with spaces in which to study, work and live, shielding us from the dangerous world outside. We have never wanted so desperately for silent buildings to speak up and understand our minds -- to be safer and more comfortable and energy-efficient.

But how to make buildings smarter? In the past, buildings did not know if someone would enter or leave them. They were unaware of its occupants’ activities. Today, the development and application of building automation, smart infrastructure, cloud computing, AI, IoT, digital twin and many other cutting-edge technologies and solutions endow buildings with brains and nerves that allow them to understand their occupants.

A smart building should be people-centered and well-designed to better serve humans. Therefore, in the design and construction phase, based on static data about a building captured by digital twin, such as the size of the floor plate, number of rooms, windows, wiring, technologies installed across the building and construction materials used, and with the support of visualizations and simulations, the building design can be tweaked to include aspects such as evacuation planning, optimized room layouts and projected energy use, and at the same time improve engineering efficiency. In future, the digital twin can dynamically adjust building functions to take care of changing use requirements or weather, and perform fire detection and warning. A building experiencing a fire will send real-time information about the location of the fire, where people are gathered, trapped or exiting the building, and all fire suppression and escape data to firefighters heading to the blaze. This can help them better attack the fire, rescue those inside and protect properties.

A smart building should be able to understand its environment and interact, learn and adapt. Enabled by the IoT devices installed within it, a smart building can quickly capture reams of data needed to understand and analyze its environment, respond to its occupants’ demands quickly and provide feedback for scientific decision-making and delicacy management of the building. For example, by monitoring conditions such as temperature, humidity and external weather, a smart building can automatically optimize room temperature and air quality. It can also help building operators and facilities managers improve operating efficiencies, unlock predictive maintenance, and make improvements that are informed by dynamic simulations.

A smart building should also be energy-saving and productive. It should be able to understand and minimize energy consumption to leave the smallest ecological footprint as is feasible. Research shows that in China, buildings consume more than 27% of all energy, and it is projected that by 2030 the percentage will rise to 40%. Therefore, reducing energy consumption in buildings will make a big difference for the sustainable development of China’s society and economy. According to the Report on the Development of China’s Smart Building Industry, of the 40 billion square meters of existing buildings in the country, only 1% are energy-saving structures. The good news is that a smart building can reduce its ecological footprint up to 80% compared with the average building by automatically adjusting lighting and HAVC solutions based on occupancy, patterns of use, lighting and temperature data gathered from the building.

For Siemens, products and solutions that can make building smart are available already. For example, the open building management platform Desigo CC has been developed to create comfortable, safe and efficient facilities, which is deployed to make integrated management and optimization of fresh air and heat exchange system, providing key building operation data for the energy management system. Also, the power monitoring software SENTRON powermanager analyzes energy consumption by displaying important characteristics for individual devices and for the entire system on an easy-to-understand dashboard. It can easily identify potential savings or system errors, reduce energy costs and cut CO2 emissions. Furthermore, with EnergyIP Distributed Energy Optimization (EnergyIP DEOP), photovoltaic plants, wind parks, communication centers, campuses, and microgrids can increase performance through optimization. By giving users a comprehensive view of the facilities, people are able to benchmark the locations, react in real time with the support of near real-time data, and create an optimal schedule algorithm.

In China, Siemens has been committed to promoting the development of smart buildings by working with governments and companies and successfully constructed world-leading smart building pilot projects in the country. For example, Siemens worked with Qingdao Sino-German Ecopark Passive House Engineering Technologies Co. Ltd. and built the Passive House Technology Center at Qingdao Sino-German Ecopark. The technology center can keep room temperature at an optimal level without an active HVAC system. In winters the 13,800-square meter center can keep its temperature above 20℃. Environmentally friendly as it is, the building’s comfort is not compromised. It can provide a comfortable environment while consuming nearly zero energy. The building can save 1,300,000 kWh energy a year and reduce CO2 emissions by 664 tons, equivalent to the CO2 absorbing ability of 53,120 trees. If all buildings in China can be constructed or reconstructed according to the construction standards of passive houses, China can save 7 billion tons of coal equivalent by 2050.

Smart buildings are the future, and the sky is the limit. If data from buildings and energy grid in different sectors can be shared, for example, smart buildings will no longer only be energy consumers, but also intelligent prosumers, and play a refreshing role in the energy system. Siemens has initiated pilot projects around the world to integrate smart buildings into the energy grid and make them part of a distributed power system. We are now working with the Canadian government to integrate smart buildings into the grid in a couple of provinces where they have a lot of electric heating systems. By using smart buildings as “batteries”, we store excess energy as heat to shave peak loads and store energy for when there are lower production levels. Siemens has also worked with LO3, a start-up in Brooklyn, New York. Together, a microgrid was built by using blockchain. This allows building owners to sell their excess solar capacity so others in the neighborhood can run their air conditioning based on the renewables, instead of using energy from a power plant.

We are entering a time of enormous transformation in the field of building infrastructure and services. The seamless integration of sensors, digital technologies, smart infrastructure and the IoT provides owners, users and facilities managers with new possibilities in reducing costs, improving user experience, coping with climate change and beyond. In the future, smart buildings will be intuitive and smart enough to predict occupants’ needs and become more flexible and personal. Moreover, smart buildings will be a crucial starting point of building an intelligent ecosystem together with the occupants and its community, injecting new dynamics for people’s lives and the sustainable development of society.

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