Architecture as energy source
The built environment is colliding with the power grid, creating powerful opportunities for decarbonization, says Blueprint Power's Robyn Beavers.
Within the past year, a number of architecture firms and allied organizations have formally declared a climate emergency and pledged to take action. But what should this action involve, and how likely is it to happen at the scale and speed required to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming? In this interview series, the League presents different perspectives on where architecture currently stands with regard to climate action, where it needs to go, and how it might get there.
Buildings account for about 40 percent of the energy used in the United States, and renewables make up only 11 percent of total consumption. This means that a massive amount of fossil fuel is burned each year to power our homes and workplaces.
Policymakers and designers are trying a variety of approaches to reduce the resulting emissions, from legislation like New York City’s Local Law 97 to consulting services focused on deep green retrofits. Recent developments in the energy and tech sectors provide another option: turning buildings themselves into renewable energy producers that can sell their excess power, helping fuel other urban infrastructure.
Robyn Beavers co-founded Blueprint Power in 2017 to help building owners realize this potential. The League’s Sarah Wesseler spoke with Beavers about the implications of her work for architecture and the climate.
Tell me how you came to found Blueprint.
Well, just to provide context, I studied civil engineering in undergrad, so buildings are my first love. I’ve spent a lot of my career in collaboration with architects.
Most of my work has involved innovating around energy from large corporate platforms. I started at Google, where I helped launch the first green operations team, helping green the people facilities and the data center side. That included everything from putting solar on the roof at their headquarters to selecting sustainable materials as they built out offices around the world, working with what were at the time cutting-edge building systems. I spent a lot of time there thinking about how to buy more clean electricity.
After Google I worked in the energy industry, in wind, and increasingly started thinking about distributed energy. I was very excited about the potential of networks of small generators to help advance cleaner infrastructure.
And then a few years ago I was introduced to the executive team of one of the largest homebuilders in the US. They were beginning to realize that the homes and communities they were building were intersecting with energy infrastructure, and were starting to think through how that could become a business strategy. That’s where I came in.
In the process of helping them I learned a ton about how real estate works and built a new network in the real estate industry. I realized that that industry could start playing a major role in new distributed energy networks in cities and beyond.
That’s where Blueprint was born. It’s a blend of real estate, energy, and tech, which creates an exciting opportunity in dense urban environments like New York.
Can you tell me how you’ve worked with architects in the past? What has that collaboration looked like?
If you’re reimagining buildings, it’s always an interdisciplinary conversation. That’s how it’s been throughout my career. At Google there was lot of interaction with architects. And when I was at a large power company, I built a team focused on networks of distributed generation, but with a microgrid focus—a very project-by-project approach. That often meant we were working with significant real estate sites; architects were always a part of the conversation.
Collaboration is really important right now as the built environment is being transformed. The new layer, the tech piece, really challenges the status quo about how buildings work.
Give me an overview of what Blueprint does.
Sure. Blueprint helps turn buildings into power plants by connecting them to our cloud-based network. We’ve built a platform that ingests data from buildings, ingests data from the grid, ingests data from markets. We optimize how buildings can be managed to produce surplus supply of electricity at certain times, and then we decide where to sell that supply.
Buildings can generate supply by hosting clean onsite generation, like solar on the roof, or batteries can be installed inside or next to buildings. You can manage loads inside the building differently—large loads like HVAC or lighting, heating systems. You can optimize how they’re used or ramped up or ramped down, and that turns the building itself into a flexible resource. It becomes a bidirectional node in a new network. It can either be consuming electricity or pushing it out.
Do you also help clients on the electricity generation side, or do you only deal with excess supply that’s already there?
We do both. In a perfect world, every building would already have an energy asset that we could start managing and optimizing. Obviously, that’s not the case. So we use the data we’re ingesting from all these buildings to help our partners make informed decisions about that side of things.
And architects have a seat at the table on a lot of these projects. Not all the time—a lot of our work is with existing buildings that require minimal retrofits. But we do work with architects on sites that are being redeveloped, or, increasingly, on new construction.
So your work obviously builds on ideas coming out of the tech and energy sectors. Based on your experiences working with architects, do you think they have the knowledge and skills they need to recognize and take advantage of these kinds of ideas in order to make more progress on climate? Or do you think they need new skill sets?
I think basic assumptions about how a building is utilized and what it does are changing. I don’t know exactly how those changes should translate into specific skill sets for architects. But the way I think about it is that traditionally, we’ve assumed that things like electricity, water, thermal, even waste are just inputs into the building—whereas now they’re becoming bidirectional services that actually benefit the building in new ways. Our real estate partners love this approach because it helps generate new revenue for the building. And from a carbon and climate perspective, your building can do more to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint, because it’s wasting less energy and producing more clean energy. But it’s also helping the grid support more clean energy—it’s actually healing the grid to help it do more. The building isn’t just a taker, it’s a contributor.
The premise that a building is becoming a major contributor to the infrastructure around it is really exciting to me. I think it could catalyze some great innovations from the architect’s perspective that I can’t even imagine.
Okay. This interview series looks at the opportunities and barriers to architects doing more on climate mitigation. Obviously, you identified an opportunity that resulted in you starting this business. What are some other opportunities or challenges that you see around the relationship between buildings, energy, technology, and climate?
I’ll start with the exciting trends pushing buildings in this direction. The distributed energy technologies themselves have commercialized quite a bit. Solar is very cost effective; battery energy storage costs are dropping all the time. Technologies like that have come a long way, so there’s now a toolkit out there that lets us deliver these services. So that’s great.
On the regulatory side there are some good things happening. The energy industry is starting to redesign how it operates to accommodate more distributed generation. And there’s a new trend of decarbonization legislation at the city level; cities are really trying to accelerate progress on climate.
So on the macro level those are all really great things. The challenges that still exist—and I think this is super relevant for architects—are in the details around getting stuff done: permitting and codes and all the things that dictate our lives at the end of the day. Making sure that building code permitting agencies at the city level are keeping up with the technology trends is still an issue.
What else do you think architects should understand about these issues?
One way to look at what’s happening is that the built environment is colliding with energy infrastructure. That means it helps if both sides understand how the other side works, and that is certainly not the case today. So I would always recommend that the architecture community learns more about how the grid works, and that the power sector learns more about buildings.
Another thing—buildings are obviously one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Because of that, we often focus on how to limit what they do, thinking that will help with the carbon issue. But Blueprint’s philosophy is that we shouldn’t just try to make buildings less bad; they can be part of the solution. Framing it that way creates a lot of exciting opportunities. Buildings can be the building blocks of the new clean, distributed grid.
Interview edited and condensed.