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How AI can fight the climate problem hiding inside buildings

A startup called Carbon Lighthouse is using hundreds of sensors combined with AI to dramatically lower carbon emissions.

How AI can fight the climate problem hiding inside buildings
[Source Image: archiZG/iStock]
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There’s a climate culprit hiding inside the bowels of nearly every building in the country. Almost 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions comes from the construction and operation of buildings, and those operations are surprisingly inefficient. From HVAC systems to water chillers to air compressors, the little-seen systems that control things such as lighting and temperature often use far more energy than they need.

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But they don’t have to. A company called Carbon Lighthouse is using sensors and artificial intelligence to make tiny tweaks to these internal systems that can result in energy reductions of more than 20%. Installed in the offices of companies such as Tesla and within the far-reaching portfolios of investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, the company’s technology is now being used in more than 900 buildings representing more than 100 million square feet of commercial real estate.

To start with, the company installs hundreds of sensors on buildings’ internal systems, tracking many metrics, for instance, the electrical flow through fans and compressors, the airflow rate through ductwork, the rate at which water is being chilled, and the air pressure and humidity in different spaces. Then, these systems can be adjusted throughout the day to operate more efficiently.

Compared to the approach used in many commercial buildings that only automate or track a few things, such as lighting and temperature settings, it’s a huge improvement, according to Carbon Lighthouse president Brenden Millstein. “They’re not measuring any of that,” he says. “If you want to optimize the system as a whole, you have to measure all of that, but that’s of course very time-consuming.”

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To speed up that process, Carbon Lighthouse uses AI to parse the data it collects from all the buildings using its technology. Minute changes can then be made—turning off a water chiller for 20 minutes or reducing the speed of a vent fan—that result in energy savings without sacrificing performance or occupant comfort.

With hundreds of millions of data points coming in from each building monthly, Millstein says the system gets smarter with every new installation. And because most commercial buildings operate under similar and predictable conditions, what the system learns from one building can often inform how another one could improve. “It’s not just more data—it’s a very different set of data from buildings, and processing it in a way that can be turned into control signals from those same [existing] control systems so that they don’t need to be completely rebuilt, since that costs millions of dollars,” he says.

Though Millstein notes that some new buildings are designed to have highly efficient systems with advanced sensors and controls, most older buildings weren’t. “We expect about 80% of the emissions we’ll have from buildings between now and 2050 to come from the buildings that have already been built,” he says.

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The impact of these tiny energy tweaks can be huge. Millstein says that across Carbon Lighthouse’s portfolio, there’s been a nearly 30% reduction in carbon emissions. And though there is a cost to implementing this technology, Carbon Lighthouse guarantees a return on investment, based on the building and its efficiency improvement targets.

That also translates into financial savings for the owners and operators of these buildings, in the form of reduced energy needs. “Our efforts are around making it really lucrative and simple for landlords in particular to reduce emissions,” Millstein says.

To scale these reductions, Carbon Lighthouse is aiming to work with large landlords who can implement the technology in dozens or even hundreds of buildings. With nearly 6 million commercial buildings in the U.S. alone, there’s a lot of ground to make up.

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“It’s hard to stop climate change a single building at a time,” Millstein says. “Much better to do ten or a hundred or a thousand at a pop.”