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'Swarm' converges on energy use in buildings

Inspired by how bees operate in a hive, Regen Energy has developed a mesh network of controllers to try to make commercial buildings more energy efficient.

To make buildings more efficient, Regen Energy is equipping them with a bunch of miniature brains--in the form of wireless mini-controllers.

The Toronto-based start-up announced on Monday partnerships with solar energy-monitoring firm Fat Spaniel Technologies and with carbon-management software company Zerofootprint to optimize buildings for efficiency and clean power production.

Regen Energy

There are already automation systems that allow commercial building managers to view data from HVAC systems or lights and set policies to improve energy efficiency.

Regen Energy CEO and co-founder Mark Kerbel asserts that its system of building a "swarm" of autonomous controllers is a quicker and less intrusive way to accomplish the same efficiency goals.

To reduce the electricity used for air conditioning, for example, an HVAC professional can add a Regen Energy's EnviroGrid controller to each chiller. One of those controllers has a cell modem that can communicate with Regen Energy's software.

Rather than send specific instructions to each controller, the system sets parameters, such as cutting power consumption at peak times during the day. The EnviroGrid controllers individually make adjustments to the chillers, such as turning them off for 10 minutes out of an hour, which in aggregate hit the overall goal, Kerbel explained.

"We tell the controllers, 'Here are some rough guidelines for upper and lower limits' (of energy consumption) and they do the work," he said. "Right now, the way to do this sort of thing is to get a building engineer who does an analysis and then get a software programmer to write custom code."

The technology is a prime example of how computer and networking technologies are quickly being applied to the energy industry to improve efficiency.

The decentralized decision-making approach is also a break with tradition central building management systems where building equipment is typically purchased for peak power demands.

The EnviroGrid controllers themselves have a small microprocessor with 128KB of memory and enough intelligence to make decisions. If one unit in the mesh work goes down, the rest of the system continues to work. They can be installed on different building equipment, including rooftop heaters, fans, or compressors.

Overall, the mesh network is designed to smooth out a building's load over the course of a day to avoid peak-time electricity rates. It can also work with utility-run demand response programs where the power is dialed down in many locations during peak times.

The deal with Fat Spaniel Technologies is designed to help Fat Spaniel's solar array monitoring software maximize the amount of electricity used from on-site solar, Kerbel said. The integration with Zerofootprint's service will allow building managers to reduce carbon emissions by integrating real-time information on whether power is being generated from fossil fuels or renewable energy, he said.