The green building revolution will start from the ground up
Over-reliance on fossil fuels is one of the most significant barriers to achieving a more sustainable future. If we hope to achieve the limits to rising global temperatures set out in the 2016 Paris Agreement, our cities will need to be built in such a way that fossil fuel usage is decreased drastically.
Space heating consumes immense amounts of natural gas in urban centres around the world, for example, and is one of Canada’s largest sources of CO2 emissions. Implementing more sustainable alternatives could make an enormous difference in the fight against climate change.
At the same time, we need to find more innovative ways to distribute power within buildings. One of the best ways to do this is to apply greater intelligence and automation to the use of electricity. Today, too much energy is lost to inefficient conversion systems.
It’s precisely these types of challenges that Ryerson researchers and innovators are tackling to create a more sustainable future in Canada and beyond.
Unlocking the potential of geothermal
Geothermal — using the crust of the earth to heat and cool buildings — has the potential to revolutionize the HVAC industry. Not only is it energy-efficient and environmentally clean, but it can also be one of the most cost-effective space conditioning systems available. However, to drive more widespread use of geothermal, work is needed to refine the design of systems so that they can be incorporated directly into the components of a building’s foundation.
Ryerson researcher Seth Dworkin is focused on helping to take geothermal to the next level in terms of efficiency and scalability. In countries such as Sweden and Switzerland, as much as 75 percent of homes use geothermal systems, but there’s huge potential for an increase in North America and in commercial buildings all over the globe.
75%of homes in Sweden and Switzerland use geothermal systems
“We are creating, refining and combining geothermal technologies to be deployed in new commercial building developments, and in retrofits for older buildings,” Dworkin explains. “We are also studying more compact systems for application in the single-family residential market, which is still mostly untouched by sustainable alternatives, and in remote northern communities.”
The practical applications of his research, which involves working closely with industry partners, will be most beneficial where there is a low- or zero-emitting electricity generation mix. Electricity is needed for the exchangers that circulate the hot and cold air in buildings.
“If coal or natural gas is being used to generate electricity, running the geothermal heat pumps will still contribute indirectly to emissions,” Dworkin adds. “If, however, most or all of the electricity is being generated by some combination of hydro, wind, solar and nuclear, the technology will end up being much better for the environment.”
In the next 20-30 years I think we could develop, test and validate a whole suite of sustainable technologies for building energy.Seth Dworkin, Professor, Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
Indeed, while there are still challenges ahead, Dworkin is confident his work will make a difference.
“In the next 20-30 years I think we could develop, test and validate a whole suite of sustainable technologies for building energy. Those technologies would use solar energy and geothermal heat storage to provide completely sustainable heating and cooling to all building types — in all regions — without the need for fossil fuel consumption.”
Such progress would represent a major step forward in efforts to diminish our reliance on fossil fuels and create a greener future.
Smarter buildings are greener buildings
Alongside developing sustainable ways to make interior spaces comfortable year-round using alternative energy sources, researchers and innovators at Ryerson understand there is a need to reassess how power within modern commercial and residential buildings is distributed and managed, so they are more environmentally friendly.
That’s where Argentum Electronics enters the picture. Founded by Ryerson student Bolis Ibrahim, Electrical and Electronics Engineering ’19, the company was developed at the university’s Clean Energy Zone, one of 10 on-campus incubators in which students apply their degree coursework to real-world startups, causes, projects or ventures. For Ibrahim, the zone proved to be “a phenomenal growth partner,” by providing access to grants, expertise, networks and other invaluable resources.
Argentum is focused on developing intelligent direct current (DC) power distribution along with an easily reconfigurable Internet of Things (IoT) backend that connects devices, such as LED lighting and HVAC systems, to wireless sensor networks and automates how they interact.
“The reality today is that DC devices account for about 90 percent of power consumed in a building, yet power distribution is still based mainly around alternating current (AC). The conversion from AC to DC is on average only 80 percent efficient, which means that a building loses 20 percent of what it spends on that electricity,” says Ibrahim. “On the IoT side, buildings need an easier way to remotely control DC-powered devices using sensors that are more affordable.”
20%of energy is lost in most buildings to AC/DC conversion, leaving significant room for greater efficiency
Now, energy that is captured as direct current, such as solar, or converted to DC can be distributed and managed through Argentum’s award-winning micro-grid system that relies on Power-over-Ethernet (PoE). With PoE, a single cable provides both a secure data connection and power to DC devices.
“Our micro-grid system can easily be retrofit without major infrastructure changes in buildings, and instantly those buildings will realize significant energy savings,” Ibrahim explains.
“For the everyday user, it could mean seeing fewer AC wall outlets and more USB sockets,” he adds.
Behind the scenes, the implications are more profound: a system such as the one Argentum is developing could result in buildings that are much smarter and more energy-efficient.
The faceplates on our wall outlets would be a daily reminder that we’re living in greener buildings and contributing to a more sustainable future, which benefits everyone.