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‘We need to reduce energy use but cannot sacrifice IAQ’

ASHRAE President Bjarne Olesen was in the UAE in September to inaugurate the Society’s Global Training Centre for Building Excellence, in Dubai. B Surendar of Climate Control Middle East caught up with Olesen for an interview. Excerpts…

| | Nov 27, 2017 | 10:00 am
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I was looking with a lot of interest at the different subjects the centre will be covering. Here in Dubai, which has a stock of over 120,000 existing buildings, the government is giving a strong push to retrofitting. For the movement to gather pace, though, and to achieve a certain critical mass, there needs to be a bridge to finance the projects. Experts on the subject say that engineers are very good at tweaking the design and the equipment for greater energy efficiency and better indoor air quality. However, project teams fall short when it comes to convincing bankers to release funds, in the absence of a tangible collateral. So, I am curious to know if ASHRAE would consider offering courses that offer engineers practical and specialised knowledge on understanding the funding mechanism, to be able to persuade bankers to loosen the purse strings?

Bjarne Olesen: So, what you’re talking about is not so much courses on technology to do retrofitting but more about how do you do finance? Well, we don’t have a course at the moment on that. We are discussing more of this, we call them ‘soft-skill courses’, but it’s not something that has materialised into courses. It’s a discussion we have that is an interest not only here but also in the United States, for courses that are not hard-core engineering but still important for the engineering trade.

So, that might be a possibility that we would establish such courses. That also means we need to work with other groups, because now we need to have people who understand economy and others involved in creating such a course, but that’s definitely possible.

And, I just want to say about retrofit – because I think this is a very important thing in my country, Denmark, but also in the US, the building stock is renewed by about 3%. If you look at a country like India, I think 70% of the buildings that will exist in 10 years are not built yet. So, that’s a completely different market; there maybe you can focus more on new buildings, because you know soon there will be [changes], but we in Denmark have a big problem. We can have control over a very new building. We can have a well-designed building that has low energy use and great indoor comfort, but how do we get the owner to buy into retrofitting an existing building, even if it is an economical approach? What is the incentive? This is a big discussion we have in all of Europe. If we want to meet our energy targets, we need to look at existing [buildings].

But there are some incentives. By renovating a building you can create a better indoor environment, which will increase the productivity of people. You may have fewer sick days. Even improving the indoor environment in our homes can influence the productivity at the workplace. If you have a bad night’s sleep, because you don’t have much ventilation in your bedroom, then you won’t work so efficiently the next day. And we have numbers now that tell a little about how important productivity is. Just one number that highlights productivity is how much you pay people to work in the office. The cost of energy for cooling and ventilation is only one per cent of the salary. So, you see if you lose out on productivity, that’s a lot. We need to reduce energy use, but we cannot sacrifice the indoor environment. So, can you go out and sell a renovation, saying we will lower energy use, but normally still, energy is too cheap? If we also create a better indoor environment, it would lead to fewer number of sick days and increase productivity. That way, the investment will pay itself off in a couple of years.

Speaking from a Middle East point of view, there are a lot of buildings being developed, where the owner would eventually look to sell the property. If for personal use, you would make sure you have the best possible devices for IAQ, energy efficiency and water efficiency. If you know you’re going to shift the ownership, the motivation to populate the building with attributes is reportedly missing. How would you address the situation? How is it in Denmark, for instance?

Well, there is a big difference if the client is building for himself or herself or for selling to someone to earn money. Now, what in some way has changed a little is that we have these building certifications, like LEED and BREAAM. People nowadays, while buying a building or renting an office space, are looking to see if it is LEED-certified. I think that’s one thing that has helped, so those that invest in a building know they can get a higher price if they were to sell or to get a higher rent. But LEED is not very good for the indoor environment – there is a trend now where some of the LEED people are adopting the WELL building standard. They want to do the same again by having some kind of certification for the indoor environment; I think that’s needed. I know they do it, because they can earn money on it like the LEED program, but I think it will start the focus on the indoor environment, and I have always said that an energy certificate doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have an indoor environment certificate, at the same time, and if we can promote more to also get an indoor environment quality certificate then I think it will have the required effect. If you don’t get a good certificate, well maybe you cannot sell the building or you cannot rent it out, but we are not there yet; but I think it is coming.

One of the issues we’ve been discussing in the magazine for many years is how to balance the need for greater energy efficiency with good IEQ. Any talk asking for allowing more fresh air changes in the room is more often than not shot down using the argument that to do so would affect energy efficiency and raise the level of indirect emissions. In that context, do you see clean renewable energy as addressing the issue, because it will take the talk of at least indirect emissions out of the equation? That is, of course, if we have more efficient energy-storage devices and if the renewable energy captured and stored is of a certain “critical mass” to power even large HVACR equipment. We seem to be heading in the direction of more efficient energy storage with Tesla’s project in Hawaii.

Well, I still think you can introduce fresh air without having to invent or get new clean energy. Of course, it helps, because normally when we evaluate the energy use of a building and we want to look at if it’s a zero-energy building we normally look at the kind of the primary energy, be it from the sun or from hydropower. It’s like you say, clean energy, and then maybe it’s not so important how much we are using, because we have clean energy.

I still think even if you have enough of this energy, you need to start by making sure that the demand is as low as possible. For indoor air quality and ventilation, getting the demand down is making sure that your indoor sources have as low emissions as possible. There are many building products today that have very high emissions of VOCs, and that really increases the need for ventilation. Well, as occupants, we pollute the air to a great extent, but of course, we have to be in the building. That’s why we have the building, in the first place. But there’s a lot of other stuff, where we can do much better selecting the good material. So, no matter what I think how cheap the energy is, you should try to limit the demand, because you may say well, ‘I can have a lot ventilation, because it doesn’t cost me anything.’ Yes, but the more air you put in, the more you increase the risk of more noise and for draught. So, it’s still an advantage to not use too much air.

Now then, if you ventilate and we say the outside air quality is acceptable for ventilation, then good. In Denmark, for instance, we have pretty good outdoor air quality. The way we do it with ventilation is we have heat recovery. It’s required in our building code that the efficiency of heat recovery has to be 80%. So, there’s only 20% energy loss for the ventilation, and that helps a lot. A heat recovery heat exchanger is an advantage, be it when it’s very cold outside, in which case you need heating and ventilation, or when it’s warm outside, and you need cooling.

Now the problem arises when the outside air is not of a quality where you really want it to increase ventilation. It can be during a certain time in the day because of traffic and emission. If you look at big cities, like Beijing, you have particles from the traffic and industry. It can be during a certain time of the year, as in Singapore, where they get all the particles from the fire they’re burning in Indonesia. You can put really good filters to take away the particles, but that costs more in terms of energy use. I see that air-cleaning technology is already there in the market, but I don’t think we will ever get to a point where air cleaning can 100% substitute outside air; still, it could do so for part of a day. So, air cleaning is definitely a technology, but there are also some problems, because some air cleaners are not providing what they promised and we don’t have very good testing standards for air cleaners. So, we have seen in my research group that some air cleaners can make it worse, because some of them use some kind of chemical reaction inside the air cleaner, but they don’t know always what’s in the air, for example. As people, we give off a large number of chemicals. What if they interact with the air cleaner and give off some new substances, which may be harmful to the body? Having said that, an air cleaner is definitely a technology you can use to improve indoor air quality through not using too much energy, because you don’t have to heat up or cool down so much outside air. But we need to have a better certification testing of air cleaners.

I have one more question related to the global training centre. Just like we need more financial education for engineers, we perhaps also need education on the legal aspects to prevent or resolve contract-related disputes involving MEP consultancy and contracting companies. Is that something you would consider introducing as a course?

I think that’s a very good point, and also the other point of what we call as soft skills. I know some of our societies, like SMACNA, do these types of courses to help their members. I think that’s a really good point. I will bring it back to our educational department, and that would be something. We cannot provide it now but I think it’s a very good idea to include.

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