Green Life Smart Life (GLSL) model house with its owners (inlay) Joe and Kimberly Hageman
Green Life Smart Life (GLSL) model house with its owners (inlay) Joe and Kimberly Hageman

MAY 2010: Joe and Kimberly Hageman enjoy incredible views of Narragansett Bay and the Newport Bridge from their home. They also enjoy technology. They built the ‘Green Life Smart Life’ (GLSL) model house to convince themselves that a techie life-style and a green home could co-exist. What they realised is that technology is not only capable of co-existing but also enhancing a green lifestyle.

The team that designed the house reviewed every electronic device in the house in terms of annual wattage, load requirements and integration with other subsystems. The home was structurally wired for state-of-the-art whole-house video, music, lighting, security and Internet. Using a centralised entertainment equipment room, they reduced the wiring needs by over 50 per cent. The wiring system received platinum rating from the Consumer Electronics Association’s TechHome Rating System. The design was also submitted to the US Green Building Council for consideration as a LEED-H Innovation & Design point for Green Wiring.

GLSL is all you could dream about in terms of technology: overall home control, energy management and entertainment. They used the Control4 operating system to consolidate and automate lighting, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning (HVAC), security, climate control, etc. The Control4 platform uses a ZigBee-enabled device to bridge data from the utility meter to the home control system.

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Their energy management solution enables them to power-down high-energy-consuming appliances when they aren’t in use and schedule down-times for maximum efficiency. It also has single-button trigger solutions for easy programming of sequenced power on and off scenarios throughout the home, including a ‘green’ mode. Add to this a communication system to monitor feedback from all electricity loads in the house with real-time analysis of usage and savings; occupancy, temperature, magnetic and timed sensors; as well as a self-activated ‘away’ mode setting that takes over when there is nobody in the house.

One of the key features of this home is the Lutron HomeWorks lighting control system that is programmed to include a high-end trim of 85 per cent for every connected light in the house, and features automatic control of motion and occupancy sensors. The occupants manage their ‘all-home music’ via the NuVo Essentia E6G—the first and currently only whole-home audio system with an Energy Star rating.

In addition, the house has a zillion enviable tech features including automated locks and flat panels mounted with components made of recycled materials. Remember, this is a model home project—but not merely a project—a real home that people live in, and hence undeniable proof of the potential of technology in green buildings.

Smart grids: A smart turn for India

A smart grid is typically a collection of smart devices and applications applied to the electricity grid to provide real-time information about the performance of the grid. This information allows the service provider (utility) to make smarter and faster decisions in order to improve productivity and power management. When extended to the customers, it enables ‘demand-side’ management—and a green home. That is, it equips customers with the information required to understand and control their power consumption, thereby helping to reduce the footprint of each household!

Last year, North Delhi Power Limited (NDPL) engaged GE to implement a smart grid focused on power outage management. The smart grid solution would help to maximise the system’s uptime, while also helping NDPL to quickly restore power to homes and businesses in the event of an outage. This delivery optimisation would improve reliability, and also reduce losses, thanks to better visibility and management.

While the current project is aimed more at power outages, demand-side management is also planned as part of the Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme (RAPDRP). If implemented over time, it would have a blanket effect, enabling several buildings to become green by simple power management!

Another interesting technology was announced by GE last year, in the context of the smart grid—the zero net-energy home project, through which GE will show that it is possible to build houses that produce as much energy as they consume, at just 10 per cent additional cost. The model will use GE’s technologies and smart appliances for generating, storing and managing energy. Connected to a smart grid, the house will be in a position to not just buy power from the grid but also sell excess solar energy!

How green is my valley?
“‘Green’ is an often-used term these days. Green is, broadly, anything that is environment-friendly. It is used to popularise energy-saving practices in daily life without sacrificing the quality of life. There are two sides to this statement. One, the consumption of less energy through better efficiency, thereby reducing the production levels, and the other, the production of energy in an environment-friendly manner. Both these aspects put together will almost guarantee smaller carbon footprint,” says Ramprasad Ananthaswamy, director-power management products, Texas Instruments India.

There are several ways in which a building can be made green—right from the design, the materials used and methods of construction to the technologies (design tools, sensors, smart meters, temperature controls and timers, lighting systems, energy management solutions, etc) built into it. On another plane, the occupants of an existing building can also add to the green hue by adopting energy-efficient gadgets and appliances, harvesting rainwater and so on.

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This concept of ‘green building’ as such is quite nascent—but in every way possible—in India. There are some splendid examples including full-fledged complexes such as the Confederation of Indian Industries’ Green Business Centre in Hyderabad and the recently redone Thyagaraj Stadium in New Delhi.

The expertise, the technologies and the products required for sustainable ‘green’ buildings are aplenty today. “First, we had problems with the availability of these products; now these are easily available. Cost is separate from value. The cost of these equipment is, like in any other trade, a factor of demand and consumption. We have seen the prices of these equipment fall over the past few years. These are currently available at prices that are within the reach of the so-called upper middle-class families. The not-so-highly-technological items like fluorescent lamps and gas geysers are priced such that even a lower middle-class person can afford. In my understanding, the fall rate is adequate as of now, and it can only be accelerated with a parallel acceleration in usage,” says Nilesh Gandhi, architect and sustainable building design specialist.

Electronics industry: Connecting the dots
It is obvious that there is a lot of electronics and information technology involved, right from the computer-aided design tools used for designing green homes, their wiring systems, et al to a plethora of gadgets, sensors, control mechanisms and energy management tools used. What is more, there is a growing demand for these products, given that the green building trend is catching on.

“The electronics industry will greatly benefit from making products that will help drive the energy costs lower. Whether it is active power management in a cellphone or maximum power-point tracking in a solar panel, there is energy to be saved. This will require innovation both at the chip and system level. There are alliances being established between solar panel makers, sensor makers, standards committees, and the electronics industry to drive energy-efficient solutions that will benefit all. The Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) is working with a set of corporations to help drive the standards. This will bring about the required awareness,” says Ananthaswamy.

Once awareness and inclination emerge, not just adoption but innovation too will set in. Then, there will be nothing holding us back.

To begin with, here are five ways in which technology can help ‘green’ your home or office.

1. Start with your lights; try LEDs
For a while now, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) have been touted to be energy-savers. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are now cropping up as a better alternative. The power consumption of LEDs is less than half that of a CFL, and the electronics associated with driving the LEDs is a lot less complicated compared to CFLs. This helps in reducing the power-line noise. Power supply controllers that drive the LEDs help with power factor (PF) greater than 0.95, resulting in lower total harmonic distortion (THD). These LED lamps are retrofit into the existing sockets.

“Let me show you the cost differential involved in lighting: An 18-watt CFL costs Rs 220 today. An equivalent 6- to 8-watt LED lamp costs Rs 600. However, CFL has 10,000 hours of life compared to 50,000-hour life of an LED lamp. The price of LED lamps will also come down as the volumes ramp up. The reliability of the electronics will only go up, giving everyone an opportunity to adopt LEDs. Rework is nil and the power saving is enormous. Most of all, it is the right thing to do for our planet,” urges Ananthaswamy.

The next step, especially for commercial developments, is to go for holistic lighting systems. These can be designed to accurately control voltage and current regulation for precise LED light intensity and colour mixing, temperature monitoring to prevent thermal runaway, intelligent and adaptive dimming of the LED, and fault detection (over-voltage/over-current, blown-string). Communication with external systems is also possible via power-line communication, wireless technology or interfaces.

Add lighting timers to this, and lights and utilities will automatically dim or turn off after office hours. Public areas can even use motion-sensor-based lighting systems, which can help to reduce power consumption when coupled with the dimming option available with LED lighting.

2. Go for ‘green’ electronics
Homes can go for Energy Star rated appliances, energy-efficient computers, routers and other ‘green’ electronics. All this is not at all difficult to find now, because the entire electronics industry is painting its brochures green. Energy Star rated monitors, televisions, refrigerators, microwave ovens, etc are easily available. So are energy-efficient computers with processors that automatically shut down when not in use, lower standby power consumption, LED-backlit displays that are cooler and use less power, etc.

Of late, a few solar-powered gadgets—watches, mobile battery chargers, etc—are also starting to appear in the market. These are definitely worth a try.

Do it right, get recognised

A mandatory all-green construction system will take time, and this being a transition phase, it would be not advisable to use the regulatory mandatory card, as it would invite more criticism than participation. The green movement needs to grow, and grow thick and fast to a point where making it mandatory wouldn’t pinch a soul. We need to take concrete steps in this direction, but cautiously.

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Although not mandatory, there are a few certifications and guidelines available in India:
1. Builders can voluntarily apply for The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating available in India. There are around 500 registered LEED buildings in India, and around 50 have already been certified. The LEED guidelines are also being tweaked to suit the Indian conditions.
2. Other voluntary rating systems such as those by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and Eco-Housing India are also available, although the TERI rating is still in the development stages.
3. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, in collaboration with TERI, has set up the Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment (Griha)—a rating agency which will approve a building as green under certain parameters.
4. BEE star labels for factories and offices are becoming a norm where energy consumption is above 500 kVA.

There are several steps that the builder and occupants can take to ensure a green building. I would suggest rainwater harvesting, a recycled water plant, and a solar and/or wind hybrid mechanism—in principle, a major focus on water and power. There are many more elements like materials, environmental impact and efficiency of various systems that have a deep impact, but water and power are the ones where the impact and savings are instantaneously visible.

—Nilesh Gandhi, architect and specialist in sustainable buildings, on certifications and regulations

Household appliances are becoming even smarter. Though not commercially available yet, GE has developed appliances that can respond to signals from an electric utility that demand is high. For example, a dryer might shift from using more than 4 kilowatts of energy to just 700 watts, drying clothes at a slower place and decreasing demand from the grid. Plus, a ‘home energy manager’ device will allow consumers to set multiple appliances to automatically respond to signals from the utility. The ability to reduce peak demand could allow utilities to put off building new power plants. According to a GE spokesperson, if 250,000 dryers responded to a signal from the utility, it would be enough to offset all the power generated by a coal power plant!

Companies need to do more than homes: go for cooler, energy-efficient servers, sustainable design of data centres, motion-sensors to switch off HVAC and lighting systems when there is nobody in the room, and so on.

Ananthaswamy suggests that offices can even go in for green-mode power supply controllers for computers. “These make sure that the computer monitors go into sleep mode when not in use and help consume less energy. The decision-making is shared and if one forgets to turn off the monitors when they are not in use, green-mode power controllers, along with system controllers, turn the monitors off,” he explains.

Another area where one can save energy is by using efficient uninterrupted power supply (UPS) units. We have a lot of indigenous innovations in this space. For example, there is a high-capacity UPS system for enterprises, designed by Uniline, that uses a high-frequency pulse-width-modulated rectifier/inverter system based on insulated-gate bipolar transistors. By doing this, they have managed to achieve an input power factor (PF) greater than 0.99 and a total harmonic distortion less than five per cent. High input power factor helps to reduce the power consumption by as much as 30 per cent. Also, the systems are designed for hot Indian climate and do not even require air-conditioning—another power saver!

3. Let the sun in!
Every commercial building’s rooftop has a large unused area. Solar panels can be installed and used for a variety of purposes ranging from water heating to lighting. They can be used especially to power areas of a building that are lit by LEDs. “I say this because the solar panels’ light-to-electricity conversion efficiency is low and even a large panel will not produce large amounts of power. However, the power produced by these panels is more than adequate to power LED lamps. An inverter with over 95 per cent efficiency can be used to convert the solar power into usable alternating current (AC),” says Ananthaswamy.

Ananthaswamy goes on to explain that one can benefit from a solar panel for thirty years. The barrier to entry today is the cost of the panels, sensors, monitors, etc. However, if you amortise the cost over thirty years, it ends up being inexpensive. In the last six to eight months, the cost-per-watt of solar power has come down 30-40 per cent. With the National Solar Mission and other government subsidies, solar power will become affordable in the near future. The breakeven for solar panels until recently used to be seven years, but now it is just around three years. Added solar panel capacity and the wider adoption of renewable energy through awareness will bring the breakeven point even lower.

What is more, solar energy does not have to be tapped only from the rooftops. According to recent news reports, Dow Jones, the media giant, is going in for an unprecedented solar panel installation. The 4.1-megawatt solar power system will be installed at its 200-acre campus in South Brunswick, New Jersey, next year, and cover nearly 21,368 sq. m of parking space. This is an excellent example of solar energy being tapped in large areas other than the terrace! Believed to be one of the largest installations of its kind, it is hoped that the captured energy will provide for 15 per cent of the campus’ power needs. During very sunny periods, it might even provide 50 per cent of the required power. It is believed that the investment will breakeven in as early as three years.

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4. Hot or cold, keep it within your control
Notable energy-guzzlers, be it at your home or in a commercial establishment, are the HVAC systems. As a natural consequence of the ongoing green drive, various manufacturers are coming out with energy-efficient HVAC systems.

For some time now, energy-saving features have been there in air-conditioners (ACs): sleep-mode timers, temperature control, etc. Of late, ACs are also being fitted with so-called ‘magic eyes’ or motion sensors, which detect the presence of people and lower the temperature setting or capacity automatically when the occupants leave the room, reverting to the presets as soon as the room is occupied again.

Brushless DC motors for air-conditioning compressors and built-in inverter control are the other energy-saving technologies taking over the air-conditioning space. Though these technologies have been spoken about since 2005, it’s only now that they have become mainstream. Inverter-fitted ACs, as against older models, can work in variable capacities. So once the required temperature is attained, these ACs simply shift to a lower capacity rather than shutting down and restarting the compressor—a process that consumes a lot more energy.

Industrial HVAC systems implement such mechanisms on a more complex scale, having a whole network of sensors to monitor all areas, centrally control (or even automate) temperature settings and so on. Nowadays, energy management systems can even be accessed over the Web from remote locations, to monitor or vary energy consumption. Computerised energy audits also help to take a critical view of energy consumption and redesign systems or recalibrate settings accordingly.

Lifeline technologies for a green building

Some of the most exciting technologies like sensor networks, embedded electronics, embedded algorithms and software are maturing to become the lifeline for green buildings.

Here is a sample of how these act as enablers:
1. Solar energy: Improve solar cell (conversion) efficiency
2. Smart grids: Automatic metering infrastructure (AMI), alternative power generation, usage profiling and consumption control
3. Quality of occupancy: Ambient intelligence, lighting (LED, powerline communications), temperature control, security
4. Water consumption: Water metering, quality assessment
5. Micro green zones: Increasing the green canopy in enclosed spaces
6. Embedded software: Algorithms, network creation, maintenance and analytics

—S. Uma Mahesh, co-founder and CEO of Indrion Technologies (provider for green buildings)

5. Building-integrated and building-wide green technologies
There are several building-integrated ‘green’ technologies that are available today: high albedo paints and other materials to keep buildings cool, automatic and tight doors and windows that can avoid energy leakage, better design of rooms to provide natural light and ventilation, lighting systems, intelligent wiring, rainwater harvesting, green roofs, solar panels and so on. Your budget, of course, might shoot up anywhere from 3 to 10 per cent, but the investment is worth it because the savings in the long run will be much more!

If you are also considering futuristic technologies, solar-panelled windows are a good option. Konarka has developed flexible, transparent plastic-based solar cells that can be used as a layer on windows. This technology is soon going to be used by a Massachusetts-based company to manufacture building materials, including windows.

Thinking ahead of windows, what if there is a paint that can harness solar energy? Several teams of researchers (including one from Swansea University and the other from the New Jersey Institute of Technology) have demonstrated the possibility.

Building-integrated technologies apart, there are several building-wide technologies that one could adopt: lighting systems, HVAC control systems, sensor networks, other energy management solutions, smart meters that help to analyse and understand power consumption, optimised wiring design and so on.

On governments and local markets
With abundant natural resources and new constructions happening all the way, we are well set to embark on a revolution. However, we need a push. Where could it come from, and how did other countries, such as Germany, manage to accelerate the trend?

“Green technologies will become affordable on the hinge of two requirements: first, it is essential that governments commit to green technology within their jurisdictions, and second, local markets and industries must be developed which can support regional economic and sustainable growth and development,” answers Christine Thuring, contributing editor to and director of Chlorophyllocity.

“India has one of the highest GDPs in the world. Consider the exponential increase of green buildings in the last few years, and the Indian Green Building Council’s activity since its inception. If these conditions continue, it may be plausible that India could have an all-green construction system in 60 years’ time.”

The author is a is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Bengaluru