This post was co-written by Sidewalk Labs Data Scientist Jenny Chen.
With cities around the world committing to strong climate actions, more and more places are pushing for greater energy efficiency in commercial real estate. But it’s not easy for building owners and tenants to do their part for the planet. There’s never been a simple, plug-and-play, comprehensive energy-saving system for office spaces.
That’s why we’re excited to announce Mesa: an easy-to-install kit that uses real-time data and automation to optimize energy use in commercial spaces. We’ve piloted Mesa in two office buildings in New York City, and we’re looking to work with other commercial landlords or tenants around the world (email us!), so we’d like to share a little more about how Mesa can help cut energy waste and cost.
Commercial buildings have an outsized environmental impact in cities. In New York City, for instance, commercial buildings make up 15 percent of floor area but account for nearly 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. In response, at least 31 U.S. cities have passed new laws setting energy benchmarks or reporting mandates for office buildings and other commercial spaces, with 15 now requiring energy performance targets.
But most energy management technology that could help commercial buildings cut energy waste is expensive or complicated to install, or both. Upgrades are especially challenging for older, smaller (Class B and C) buildings with more affordable rents, as noted in a 2020 report by the Urban Land Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute. Older buildings typically lack the advanced building management systems found in their newer counterparts, as well as the big budgets needed to make major energy investments.
Mesa is a cost-effective option designed with older, more affordable office spaces in mind. The plug-and-play kit cuts energy waste across heating and cooling systems, as well as “plug loads” (the energy consumed when appliances are plugged in, whether or not they’re in use). The goal is to help commercial buildings comply with energy regulations and reduce energy costs by up to 20 percent — all while providing tenant controls to ensure temperature comfort.
That’s the general overview. Here’s a bit more about how Mesa works.
Automating away energy waste
When it comes to commercial energy use, the little things matter. Things like turning off appliances that aren’t in use, or adjusting thermostats based on office occupancy, or setting cooling systems to higher temperatures on weekends or holidays. Studies show these simple changes add up to big savings. For example, raising the temperature of a 5,500-square-foot office space in New York City from 73 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit could reduce cooling energy consumption by 24 percent, based on the commercial buildings model published by the U.S. Department of Energy.
But right now most office spaces aren’t set up to easily cut energy waste. Tenant spaces can account for 40 to 60 percent of a commercial building’s energy use, but office workers who consume energy aren’t responsible for energy bills, giving them little incentive to turn off the lights or lower the heat. Often tenants don’t even have control over the energy systems in spaces, instead routing requests through a building manager. Landlords sometimes bundle energy costs into commercial rents, giving tenants no insight into how much energy they actually use.
Mesa uses automation to help capture these low-hanging energy savings — giving commercial buildings similar capabilities to a bespoke energy management system without the expensive equipment and high-touch installation. Some key Mesa features:
Plug and play. Mesa is designed as a plug-and-play solution for commercial buildings. Every Mesa kit comes with clearly labeled devices and an easy installation guide based on individual floorplans. The system is compatible with any space that uses a thermostat to directly control heating or cooling, and it connects via existing Wi-Fi networks, so there’s no complex wiring or system integrations. Busy owners or tenants can basically just plug, peel, stick — and start saving energy.
Automate space. Mesa energy sensors gather non-personal information about an office environment, such as interior temperature and occupancy. (To preserve privacy, there are no cameras and occupancy data is limited by default to whether a space is occupied or empty, rather than occupancy counts.) The automated system then manages heating and cooling, turns off unused power outlets, and sends timely maintenance alerts to building operators — all with the goal of reducing energy waste. Importantly amid the pandemic recovery, the system can even improve ventilation if spaces need fresh air.
Incorporate external data. Mesa can incorporate external data, such as weather patterns, to avoid the common problem of over-cooling or over-heating spaces based on fixed seasonal set points. For example, Mesa can adjust interior systems on unseasonably warm winter days when a pre-set, non-automated system might leave the heat blasting. It also understands the time needed to cool or heat a space, so it won’t start the cooling or heating process too early.
Adjust for comfort. Mesa’s thermal comfort buttons (too hot, too cold, just right) make it easy for occupants to provide temperature feedback, and a tenant app enables occupants to see real-time office temperature by zone. These functions help the energy system adjust to tenant preferences and also help workers find areas of an office that might be more comfortable. The tenant app also gives office managers remote access to energy systems, enabling adjustments when unexpected circumstances arise, such as work-from-home orders.
Designing for affordability, flexibility, and privacy
Energy management may not be the most urgent matter facing commercial owners and tenants, given the uncertain future of office spaces amidst Covid-19. But local energy standards aren’t going away — nor is the planet’s climate challenge — even as budget-strapped cities lack resources for programs to help older buildings meet increasingly stringent requirements. If anything, the pandemic has increased the need for affordable energy management options.
It’s also shown the need for flexible systems. Many existing energy management tools remain fixed to the standard workday assumptions of years past. As work patterns vary dramatically in the coming months and years, an energy system must be able to detect day-to-day changes — and respond accordingly.
Just as critical as affordability and flexibility is privacy. As with all Sidewalk Labs pilots and products, Mesa went through a Responsible Data Use process that required our team to design for privacy and ethical implications from the very start of the development process. Consistent with the principal of “data minimization,” the digital devices in the Mesa kit are not capable of identifying an individual. That information simply isn’t needed to optimize commercial energy use.
Mesa is the first of several products Sidewalk plans to launch over the coming months — all with a particular focus on improving sustainability and affordability. These innovations reflect our commitment to combine forward-thinking urban design with cutting-edge technology to help solve common growth challenges facing cities around the world. These products build on insights from our years of comprehensive planning work, including most recently in Toronto, and they’ll continue to inform our work with large-scale urban developments.
Of course, Mesa alone can’t solve the energy challenges facing buildings, but it’s part of a broader set of urban innovations that we think will help cities meet their climate targets. These include sustainable mass timber construction and affordable electrification systems that help households lower their carbon footprint within their utility budget. As a step toward that future, we’re planning to deploy kits in even more commercial buildings in the coming months. Stay tuned for updates!
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Rachel Steinberg is a Director of Product Management at Sidewalk Labs.