Artificial intelligence can help unlock efficiency and emissions savings

ABB Smarter Buildings
Smart Buildings

Artificial intelligence, incorporating Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, is key to enabling building owners and managers to improve performance as well as lowering energy use, costs and carbon emissions, writes Adalbert Neumann, Global Product Group Manager Building & Home Automation Solutions, Smart Buildings Division, ABB Electrification.

Smart buildings, defined as those employing interconnected digital and automation technologies to optimize performance, are fast being recognized as critical to decarbonizing the built environment and limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C this century.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) 2020 Global status report1, building construction and operations account for 38% of total energy-related CO2 emissions globally. Energy production is responsible for 76% of greenhouse gases (GHGs) worldwide2. Furthermore, the figures for building operations in isolation have increased to a record high of 28% of energy related CO2 emissions.

The increasing importance of building decarbonization, and the role of innovations such as artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of things (IoT) solutions, were recognised at the COP27 climate conference3 in Sharm El Sheik in Egypt, where more than 140 of the events focused on real estate and construction.

Intelligent, fit-for-purpose buildings solutions, founded on AI and IoT, have a significant role to play in ensuring the long-term viability of the world’s building stock, which, as the 2021 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction points out, needs to be at Net Zero emissions by 20504.

Smart technology can be used to monitor and leverage all aspects of building and facility management, from heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) to the usage and allocation of energy. AI has the power to take things a step further, upgrading building systems, enabling them to learn, reason and even solve problems, for even greater optimization and decarbonizing infrastructure.

How does AI enable smart building systems?

We’ve all no doubt encountered the AI that’s already embedded in many aspects of our everyday lives, whether that’s on our social media feeds or entertainment streaming services. In an industrial setting, AI can fast track society’s journey to carbon neutrality.

According to the Capgemini Research Institute, AI is likely to reduce overall GHG emissions by 16% by 2030 and is estimated to have helped organizations fulfil up to 45% of the Paris Agreement targets5.

Let’s take HVAC systems as a real-world example of how this works. Since HVAC and lighting alone can account for about 50% of energy use in an average commercial building6, implementing central and automated controls has a significant impact in terms of conserving energy and waste reduction.

Using a basic, non-programmable thermostat without AI, the desired temperature is set, and when it deviates from this setting the system automatically triggers the heat or air conditioning through an electrical connection. This functionality is commonplace, even for HVAC systems in larger buildings.

However, by leveraging readily available AI technology, existing HVAC equipment can be upgraded to learn, reason and even solve problems. Take the example of an office lobby that has had revolving doors installed, letting outside air in. A standard HVAC system would have wasted energy struggling to regulate the fluctuating temperatures, but with AI installed, the upgraded system quickly learns, adapts and reacts to its changing surroundings to deliver efficient, cost-effective heating and cooling.

Using machine learning, AI can not only deduce that an office’s communal area grows warmer at lunchtime as more workers congregate in that space, but it can also adapt and adjust the air conditioning proactively prior to the lunch period, thus keeping the area consistently comfortable for occupants.

This kind of speedy, accurate auto-adjustment not only conserves energy, it also eases the burden on those tasked with managing office workers’ comfort, freeing up hours that can be directed elsewhere.

Collaboration is the key to energy-efficiency AI

Climate change is everyone’s problem and it stands to reason that next to smart technology systems, and of equal importance, is collaboration and knowledge-sharing between all industry stakeholders.

As a developer of digital, automation and electrification solutions we’ve taken an in-depth look at businesses worldwide that can deploy AI and IoT in infrastructure, and where it can have the biggest impact.

In one initiative, through partnership with Montreal-based AI pioneer BrainBox AI, predictive, self-adaptive and scalable cloud-based AI solutions have been developed that help reduce energy usage, costs, and carbon emissions, from HVAC systems in commercial buildings across a range of sectors.

The platform is engineered to provide the owners of smart buildings with a simple way of optimizing their energy consumption. Once installed, it learns the patterns of the building’s HVAC system by observing crucial data points, establishes a workable map of the HVAC system’s operational patterns and then gathers ideas for greater efficiencies.

Following initial analysis, the solution then examines other external factors that affect the internal environment such as weather, occupancy trends, local electricity prices and even outdoor pollution.

The solution is currently being used in approximately 100,000,000 ft2 of commercial real estate worldwide and has the potential to reduce carbon footprint by up to 40 %7 and energy costs by up to 25% 8.

Leading the way in US, Australia, Canada and the UK

Looking at uses in retail settings, a 275,000 ft2 shopping centre in Australia, annualized HVAC energy savings of 36% have been achieved, saving 388 metric tons of carbon emissions annually. Following suit, another Australian shopping complex has also now leveraged predictive and self-adaptive capabilities of this AI technology to fully automate its HVAC system using AI, cloud computing and customised algorithms, resulting in electricity savings of 43,73kWh, or 16%, after just five months.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the owners of a 300,000 ft2 office building in Ontario have reduced annual HVAC energy usage by 29% and saved 218 metric tons of annualized carbon emissions through AI integration. In an 82,500 ft2 medical centre in Garden City, New York, the solution controls fresh air handling units and downstream variable air volume, significantly reducing asset and equipment run-times, and HVAC energy consumption, equating to 39% electricity savings on HVAC equipment in just six months(*9).

We’re seeing similar innovations in the Europe, including the UK. Manchester Metropolitan University, ranked top in the People & Planet League of UK universities, has installed a web-based Building Management System (BMS) that provides real-time access to data to support energy efficiency, while minimising operational and maintenance costs10.

The BMS provides automated control and 24/7 web browser access to alarms, trends and scheduling for temperature, lighting and air quality, and has helped the university’s new Grosvenor East building to be certified as excellent under the UK’s Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM).

Smart solutions to climate change

In conclusion, we can see that bringing building facility systems such as HVAC onto an intelligent, autonomous, AI-enabled digital platform and integrating them seamlessly with each other gives businesses a single, holistic view of how efficiently and effectively their infrastructure operates.

Armed with this data, managers can take steps to optimise energy use, slash emissions and costs, and reduce carbon footprint. Increasingly, however, AI solutions for smart buildings are taking such decision-making out of the hands of workers, resulting in significant manpower and cost savings.

Working with a mining operation in China this year, we’ve seen the installation of a new digital energy management system not only save 15% in energy costs, but also realise a 25% reduction in labour costs.

Efficiency AI, in other words, is smart enough to leverage machine and deep learning to continue to deliver environmental and financial benefits 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. By facilitating intelligent management of our living and working spaces, reducing energy consumption and emissions, AI has the power to ensure a safer, more sustainable, future for us all.


1,2,4,5,6,7,8,9 ABB draft white paper – ‘Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the building sector as a change driver towards carbon neutrality’


10 ABB case study: ‘Manchester Metropolitan University secures top sustainability rating with ABB smart building scheme’


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