University campuses are natural targets for on-site power generation, district energy systems, and even self-sustaining microgrids — and many are experimenting with adding solar, storage, electric vehicles and other grid edge technologies. But few are taking the next step of integrating the data from these systems holistically and in real time.
Last week, startup Blue Pillar, Hawaiian energy tech incubator Elemental Excelerator and the University of Hawaii unveiled a project that connects those missing links into what they’ve dubbed an “Energy-Smart University.” The project, launched in late 2017, has linked 44 solar PV arrays and their supporting inverters, 75 building submeters and 30 big buildings using building automation systems from multiple vendors, across its main Honolulu campus, as well as satellite campuses and community colleges on Oahu and other islands.
All of these devices are sending their second-by-second data to Blue Pillar’s Aurora IOT platform, software that collects and converts data from disparate systems — in the University of Hawaii’s case, more than 2,600 data points per second — into a common framework. From there, the data can be mined for insights by the university’s building energy managers, or integrated to other software platforms that can analyze the data to guide operations, planning or investment decisions.
Blue Pillar has done the heavy lifting of integrating thousands of devices using multiple communications protocols, as evidenced by its portfolio of projects for hospitals, universities and other commercial and industrial (C&I) clients across the country. In recent years, it’s expanded to integrations with providers of gateways and networks to connect sensors, lights, cameras, and other internet of things (IOT)-enabled devices.
Multi-vendor building energy management systems aren’t unheard of by any means. But today’s integrations tend to take place at the level of the pre-existing protocols for managing that particular class of technology, Eric Reichel, Blue Pillar’s vice president of customer success, explained in an interview last week.
Building automation systems that run on Tridium JACE boxes can talk to others using gear from different vendors — but those aren’t linked to the various smart lighting networks, both proprietary and protocol-based, that are proliferating in buildings. And those aren’t linked to the real electricity-generating, transforming and distributing equipment like building circuits or the inverters connected to rooftop solar or behind-the-meter batteries.
It’s possible to integrate all of these disparate systems on a project-by-project basis, Reichel noted. But “our value proposition has always been that, while that’s possible, what you end up with at the end of the day is a very custom-designed, cobbled-together science project that’s very hard to maintain — and it’s only as good as the project engineer you have on the project.”
Blue Pillar, by contrast, has designed a system that brings all of these assets into a common IP-based infrastructure, built on its voluminous and growing list of equipment that it has integrated to in the past, including water, gas and electric meters, diesel and gas generators, energy storage system, solar panels, inverters, boilers, HVAC control panels, combined heat and power systems, building automation systems and fuel cells.
This level of pre-integration has been accompanied by expanded business models to bring the Indianapolis, Indiana-based company’s technology to market. In 2017 it launched a Network-as-a-Service offering, meant to provide a turnkey IOT networking solution to C&I customers. At last month’s DistribuTech conference in New Orleans, the company announced a Deploy-It-Yourself Management Platform. Blue Pillar says the platform can automate much of process of designing, quoting, installing, configuring and remotely managing an IOT network, including an operating system designed for third-party IOT gateways and several applications for engineers, installers and network managers.
All of these tools are meant to reduce cost, complexity and time to implementation for IOT networks — but they’re also meant to aid their users in achieving their IOT-enabled energy management goals, Reichel said. In the case of the University of Hawaii, its main goal was to meet a 2015 state legislative mandate to achieve net-zero energy use by 2035. This was relatively small part of the ambitious 100 percent clean energy by 2045 mandate passed that year. But it put the university in the position of needing to know a lot more about its energy use than it did at that time, he said.
For example, the university’s only insight into its grid energy usage from the more than 300 buildings it operates was coming in the form of monthly utility bills, so “they had already decided they needed to put in some submetering,” he said. It also needed to collect and analyze data from the 30 biggest buildings at its Oahu campus, and while many of them already had technology installed, “as with most universities that have been built over decades, they had everything but the kitchen sink in terms of equipment [and] building automation systems,” he said.
With the data that Blue Pillar’s system now collects from these systems, the university can break down how much energy it’s buying from utility Hawaiian Electric versus how much it’s self-generating from solar at any given time, as well as better plan future efficiency or distributed energy investments, said Reichel.
Blue Pillar’s cloud-based platform also allowed it to tap into the university’s existing solar arrays, which were built by different vendors using different equipment, through a relatively novel method.
“Most of them have put in their own monitoring solution, a cloud-based system that you can log into,” Reichel said. “What we’re able to do is, instead of adding additional monitoring, or cutting off the vendor’s cloud application and use that port to connect to directly, [is] go to each one of those solar monitoring solutions at a cloud level to do a cloud integration. I think that’s pretty unique. I haven’t seen a lot of platforms that have done that.”
At the same time, Blue Pillar has integrated with many different providers of software to make use of the granular and real-time data it collects. “You know well how many hundreds of cloud-based energy analytics companies are cropping up that specialize in different things,” said Reichel, such as chiller optimization, fault detection, and other technically complex aspects of managing building energy use. “We don’t want to get into the game of competing with all those different companies.”
Blue Pillar’s work with the University of Hawaii was spurred by its partnership with Hawaii’s Elemental Excelerator, the Department of Energy-supported incubator which has funded more than 82 companies with $30 million in total investments to date. Blue Pillar has raised about $34 million from investors including GXP Investments, Elevate Ventures, EnerTech Capital, Allos Ventures, Arsenal Venture Partners and Claremont Creek Ventures.