‘Buildings as a Grid’ is the new keyline from power management company Eaton.
It acquired EV charging company Green Motion in March and it and has launched a suite of hardware, software and services that enable building owners to step up their electricity use – adding EV charging – while delaying the need to step up their connection accordingly and facing higher grid charges.
Eaton says that by managing the building energy system as a grid, facilities can become energy hubs. Owners can use the existing infrastructure more efficiently and prepare for potential new revenue streams that arise from working with the electricity network or providing charging services.
Siobahn Meikle, Eaton’s managing director for UK and Ireland, told New Power that rather than considering single elements of demand inisolation, “Seeing a building as an energy hub is the prize”.
She says there are lots of different ways of doing that. The difference with Eaton’s offering is that it is scalable. “You can do it with just one small solar panel, or across a very large campus. In simple terms, you can take that building and get it to a position where you can meet all your energy needs. You can have solar panels, storage, the power distribution network that you have in the building anyway and EVs.”
It appears that EVs are a game-changer for energy in buildings. Meikle thinks that soon enough charging points will be expected as part of standard lease requirements. That will in turn require building energy management systems. That way “The software does anything you want it to, so you may have cars in the car park all day and put them on a small load and slow charge, and do balancing, or you may have people visiting for 15 minutes” and needing faster charging.
She says, the next level is “exporting it back to the grid and monetising it. We have some examples in France where they use solar from the day to charge vehicles that come back overnight” using storage to ‘carry over’ the power from the PV.
Richard Molloy, manager of the Eaton’s UK storage business, adds that buildings have to move on, “From passive consumers to an active participant in the grid. We know that there needs to be an increase in grid flexibility overall. … if we don’t have the flexibility in our buildings we will continue to need fossil fuels.” He says that the building must be “not part of the problem but part of the solution” - even now, he points out, shifting the building load out of peak times helps reduce the need to start up fossil plants.
Testing the limit
Along with accommodating EVs, building owners want to save money and, increasingly, save carbon, says Meikle. She points out that many buildings already have equipment and systems that can become part of a smart building solution. One example is power backup and smoothing systems that can become part of the ‘building grid’ with a simple firmware update. “You can do it a bit at a time and it depends what your ambitions are – you can get all the way to being an energy hub and an exporter,” she says.
Molloy says there is a limit to ‘soft’ upgrades – but the limit may accommodate much more change than the building owner realises: “If you have a 100kVA connection your limit is 2.4MWh a day and if you are going to exceed that it is the point at which you need to look at adding generation and whether you have roof space for PV, for example. There will come a point when there is a limit but there is an awful lot you can do to manage it.”
Workplace EVs can be charged either slowly across the day or at scheduled times, and “If you have the software you can effectively get a quart out of a pint pot”.
Is the market ready?
Buildings as a Grid is a complex proposition, and Eaton faces equal complexity on the buildings side, given that buildings may be developed, owned, managed or leased by different companies or individuals.
Asked who are likely to take an interest first Meikle says “It is the people who are owning or operating a fleet,” who can drive the need for on-site charging by asking for it from the site owners or operator.
I ask whether there is an opportunity among the complexity, as building managers, for example, may be operating a number of properties and are looking for an opportunity standardise part or all of the model across their properties. Meikle thinks there is a way to go to have enough standardisation in solutions to be able to ‘copy and paste’ across a portfolio.
But in the long term Molloy says that there is an opportunity for the building operator too, as it can operate the EV chargers in a way that gives it a new revenue stream. That is part of Eaton’s new offering - the key is that the manages the power flows.
That brings us back to ‘Buildings as a Grid’ and how it interacts with the wider grid and our long term decarbonisation targets. Molloy welcomes the shift to using flexibility instead of reinforcement in distribution networks. He says, “Where we see development is needed is the ability for people to access those markets much more easily. You need an aggregator and a certain amount of capacity.
“We need to get to the point where individual business owners can access some of those revenues and get rewarded for some of the assistance they give to the system.” Meikle believes that is a necessity: “without peer to peer trading between buildings, and getting flexibility to work for everyone, we won’t get to those targets.”