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Reduce energy demand with net-zero buildings

3-minute read

July 6, 2022

With ongoing geopolitical conflict, energy availability and affordability has risen to crisis levels. This is true in both Europe and around the world.

But there is something that governments, business executives and citizens can do now to help. They can start reducing the demand for energy itself. This is especially important in the built environment. Improving energy efficiency and shifting to net-zero buildings are key to making it happen.

Around 40% of global CO2 emissions are generated by buildings. Of those, roughly 75% are operational emissions from building systems (e.g., heating, ventilation, IT servers). The remaining 25% are embodied emissions. They are generated from the manufacture of building materials, construction and fit-out.

Here’s one example of the potential opportunity on offer: Just 5% energy efficiency gains in buildings and industries in Europe could offset almost 10% of Russian gas import requirements, according to the Net Zero by 2050 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

But the pace of change—and the willingness to reduce energy demand—must accelerate now.

With less than eight years remaining to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the SDG Ambition benchmarks lay bare the role of real estate, buildings and construction. They are vital to drive progress toward many of the SDGs. Think responsible consumption and circularity (SDG 12), energy (SDG 7), climate (SDG 13) and health (SDG 3).

And as more companies commit to RE100 as a license to operate with their own clients, reliable renewables sourcing and reporting is becoming more critical.

How do you begin the journey to net zero in the built environment? By pursuing a broader notion of value when it comes to buildings and turning to digitization as a key lever.

Companies that use this perspective can right-size real estate space and design it for the uses that matter. They can also pursue energy and resource efficiency like never before. And they can find opportunities for value across the transport and energy systems. This advances the overall effort to achieve net zero carbon cities.

Here are three things to think about as you start the net zero journey:

#1: Build your business case based on value

Building construction and operation can no longer be considered separate from the carbon emissions and environmental impact of the building. Industry leaders recognize this. They understand that non-financial outcomes (like social and environmental improvements) are just as important when designing buildings and planning retrofits.

But the largest barrier is still financing. In a recent World Green Building Council report, 53% of respondents said high upfront costs--either real or perceived--was the main concern around investing in sustainable buildings.

We recommend our clients develop their business case by looking at the full value that’s possible from investing in sustainable building technologies. In our role as knowledge partner to the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials--Net Zero Carbon Cities program, we worked with experts from the electricity, energy technology, financing and real estate industries to co-create the Building Value Framework.

This framework helps to link the value created across multiple areas to the business case. Things like emissions reduction, environmental services, user satisfaction, systemic value efficiency and socio-economic outcomes. The framework also includes a decision-making process and operational checklist to look at how to reduce risks and improve returns through green building investments.

Overall, the Building Value Framework makes it easier for building owners and operators—as well as occupants—to develop their strategy for how to achieve net-zero goals.

Accenture, in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, is working with cross-sector stakeholders--including property developers, owners and operators--in cities around the world to accelerate action towards net zero through Net Zero Cities-City Sprints.

#2: Innovate through collaboration and technology

An important part of this strategy will be deciding who to collaborate with across the ecosystem and how and where to invest in technologies to manage real estate portfolios.

Increasingly, building stakeholders are working together in new ways to make decisions. They’re collaborating on topics like how much space is needed, where it’s located, what it looks like and how to make it cost efficient as well as energy efficient. Technology is a key enabler for these interactions. In particular, platforms that support efficiency and effectiveness across owners, operators and occupants drive faster and better decision making.

We also recommend that our clients look at ways to transform the demand side of the energy system that is powering both commercial and residential buildings. They should focus on efficiency (energy, material, process), electrification, demand optimization (i.e., incentives for demand to meet supply) and carbon pricing.

In this case, cloud-based and other advanced technologies can be used to decrease energy usage in buildings—offices, plants and infrastructure. Just look at our work with Metro de Madrid.

The system transports 2.3 million commuters every day around the city. Our goal was to help ensure temperatures across stations remain comfortable while also saving on energy and costs. Accenture helped Metro de Madrid develop an efficient new ventilation system, using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The new system slashed energy costs by 25% and reduced CO2 emissions by 1,800 metric tons annually.

#3: Leverage the platform fully

Let's look deeper into how technology platforms can help. The goal is to get information about the building to occupants, operators and owners. This enables better decision making, driven by reliable and flexible insights.

At the simplest level, building-related efficiency gains come from energy efficient structures. For example, retrofits for existing buildings and energy efficient designs for new buildings. Or managing energy demand across an increasing number of smart devices.

The digitized platform takes things a step further. It ties together and helps optimize building systems like lighting and air conditioning, and occupant systems like room bookings, catering and visitor management. Increasingly, these systems are extending outside the building. Here, they can support parking management, electric vehicle (EV) charging, EV fleet operations and electric grid responsiveness.

But the scope is bigger. There is the potential to look at the entire lifecycle of the building and use technology to support all aspects. From construction to commissioning, operations, decommissioning and disposal.

The bedrock of this platform is the underlying data and analytics. Building performance decisions will only be as good as the data that feeds them—plus the AI applied. That’s why it’s critical to invest in good quality data. And trusting your tools becomes even more important when you need to scale across a real estate portfolio. Systems must be flexible to connect across multiple building and business systems.

This is the case with digitization. It’s quickly becoming a key lever in driving energy efficiency gains in buildings. By using billions of smart devices and sensors, digitization generates data that can be leveraged to drive down energy consumption. Additionally, intelligent platforms can make the building more responsive to what’s happening in the energy grid, how energy comes into the building, on-site generation and real-time pricing.

It’s already happening. For example, real estate leaders are using advanced technologies like digital twins, which create virtual models to determine the performance of physical objects. Digital twins can be used to improve energy efficiency and carbon emissions reduction of the built environment.

Case in point, Accenture is working with Johnson Controls to help a client that hosts major international sporting events. The goal is to create interoperable digital twins of selected stadiums. Using our developer experience with cloud and internet of things (IoT) platforms, Accenture is accelerating the configuration of millions of IoT datapoints. This is being done across security, safety, climate control, IT and energy systems that support facility operations.

When the co-delivered project is complete, the client anticipates 20-30% operations cost reduction across real estate operations and 10-20% reduced energy/emissions.

(Note: To learn more about our ongoing collaboration with Johnson Controls, including our innovative work on AI-enabled building control system products and services, read our recent press release.)

Real estate leaders definitely understand the potential of digital twins. Globally, 44% of CEOs say the tech will make a significant impact on sustainability in their industry over the next five years. Notably, 65% of CEOs in the real estate industry agree with that assessment.

Make strides toward net-zero buildings

Regardless of sector, leaders everywhere can improve the efficiency of their buildings while advancing their net-zero goals.

It's important to note that even as many parts of the world battle summer heatwaves, there are additional preparations needed for winter including measures to conserve energy in buildings. This guidance comes from the European Commission and the International Energy Agency, to help prevent a gas crunch in Europe this winter.

Overall, with more stakeholders in the room along with the right analytics, the will to drive for net zero is possible while designing innovative, flexible spaces. The technologies and strategies are already here to make this new real estate dynamic a reality. Contact us to discuss what actions you can begin taking now to improve your buildings and the environment for your people.


Stephanie Jamison

Global Resources Industry Practices Chair & Sustainability Services Lead