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Energy Use During Lockdown

As a result of COVID-19 there has been an unprecedented reduction in occupancy rates of commercial real estate. Before March 2020, most businesses were concerned with overcrowding, and maximizing efficiency through hot desking, room booking, and redesigned floorplans that would reduce wasted operational spending on empty desks. After March 2020, occupancy rates reached near zero.

It was commonly supposed that at least this would reduce operational spending and, more importantly, energy consumption, and that the result would be an overall improvement on the road to achieving net zero carbon in 2045. But a recent study of energy use across hotels, offices, and retail in those last few weeks of March suggests that, in fact, in many cases the lockdown only resulted in a 16% decrease. As one article points out, “the worst 10% of buildings still used approximately 97% of their typical energy demand.”[1] This represents a fairly obvious waste of money, and highlights the importance of improving building energy management at a national level to reduce needless emissions.

As Madeleine Cuff writes in the i:

A building still using 80 per cent of its usual energy demand while lying empty will be responsible for an additional 3,000kg of CO2 emissions a week, compared to an office which cut energy use by 50 per cent… equivalent to driving from London to Edinburgh 33 times.[2]

In other words, mismanagement of energy consumption tends to negate the gains that were made through reduced commuting. It may even have made things worse in the aggregate because employees working from home use more electricity and gas to heat their homes and power appliances that would normally be centralized in an office.

Dispiriting as this report can seem, it also showed that well-managed buildings were able to reduce energy consumption by more than half during the same period. H-VAC systems tend to account for a large proportion of building energy usage, and make the process of powering down a large office building extremely complex; safety dictates that water cannot be turned completely off, for example, and that lifts have to be kept in service, along with emergency lighting and access control systems. This means that most large building are left to idle; in addition, lots of appliances were left on stand-by for the period under review, sapping more power.

So, again we see the vital importance of integration in maximizing efficiency: easy gains are available to those companies willing to invest in digitally enhanced infrastructure, and apply data gathering and data analysis to reduce costs and reduce waste. But the pandemic has forced many to reappraise their carbon reduction strategies, and to note the various blind spots outlined above. As we continue with reduced occupancy and remote working for the foreseeable future, the process of powering down complex office space needs to improve, and perhaps, as Memoori suggest, the central improvement could be as simple as a single button that puts buildings into a “stand-by mode.”

[1] https://memoori.com/developing-a-stand-by-mode-for-buildings-in-the-covid-era/

[2] https://inews.co.uk/news/coronavirus-lockdown-empty-offices-electricity-wasting-energy-lights-420513

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