What are Connected Communities? And Why are they the Future?

July 8, 2020
Connected communities are collections of buildings and distributed energy resources that incorporate integrated energy management strategies — and someday soon you may find you are part of one.

Someday soon, you might live in a building that is connected to others in a way that helps reduce your utility costs and greenhouse gas emissions, write Victor Olgyay and Seth Coan of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). Here they explain the emergence of connected communities.

Victor Olgyay, Rocky Mountain institute

Looking out your window you might see another building. But close as that may be, you likely share very little with it, even though both your building and the ones near you are dependent on much of the same infrastructure. What if we change this relationship and create functional connections between buildings to enhance their operations and economics? That change is happening now, in connected communities throughout the United States.

To better understand what connected communities are and if they are effective, Rocky Mountain Institute and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory conducted a nationwide inventory of connected communities. These communities vary widely in their strategies and size, and they provide real and scalable solutions to mitigate energy costs, enable more flexibility in grid operations, and offer choices in meeting greenhouse gas emissions goals.

What are connected communities?

—— These communities are designed to share energy resources among buildings and provide services back to the grid. While there are a wide variety of typologies, there are four key elements that define what makes up a successful connected community.

  1. Grid-interactive and efficient: Consistent with the Department of Energy’s framework for grid-interactive efficient buildings, connected communities are made up of buildings that have the capability to shed, shift, or modulate energy use in response to grid signals. Connected communities accomplish this through a controls platform enabling grid-interactivity at the multi-building scale.
  2. Multiple technologies: Successful connected communities typically incorporate multiple energy technologies such as building load flexibility, renewable energy generation, and energy storage.
  3. Multi-building optimization: As distinguished from managing energy resources at the single building level, most connected communities not only manage energy across multiple buildings but employ strategies to optimize energy use and dispatch of distributed energy resources. By coordinating energy management across multiple buildings, these communities increase the benefits beyond that of a building-by-building approach.
  4. Shared systems: Geographically contiguous connected communities can incorporate physically connected shared systems, such as district thermal plants, community solar, or energy storage installations. These connections can increase utilization of the shared resource across multiple facilities, leveraging economies of scale regarding first costs and operation and maintenance costs, as well as balancing local loads across buildings.
Are the benefits worth the effort?

What are the additional values of employing energy strategies that involve multiple buildings? Can a well-designed, multi-building connected community unlock more and larger value propositions than a building-by-building approach? The answer is clearly yes. Our research and interviews conducted to date across a diverse set of connected communities, led us to the following strategies and their benefits.

  1. Increased flexibility: Connected community projects can enable significant amounts of grid flexibility. Especially in areas where utility supply may be constrained, this quality allows for increased reliability and efficiency in power system operations. Coordinated flexing of supply and demand across a number of buildings increases the capacity of this service.
  2. One plus one equals three: The connected community approach can unlock greater value and economies of scale than a building-by-building approach. Optimization of the diversity of different building load profiles provides deeper energy and emissions savings. In other words, with the connected community approach, the whole may be greater than the sum of the parts.
  3. Multiple benefits and stakeholders: There are multiple value streams that can be generated by connecting buildings. Customer financial value streams include reduced capital expenses through shared infrastructure, operating energy bill savings, and potential revenue streams from a variety of grid services. Utilities can see monetary benefits through enhanced system operational values such as reduced capacity requirements, flexibility to incorporate higher percentages of renewable generation resources, increased reliability and load flexibility, and deferred or averted grid infrastructure and connection costs. And not least of all, there are greater community benefits from providing services with reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
  4. Control is critical: In order to access all these benefits, a centralized control system is required. Central control systems that are designed to optimize the operations of distributed energy resources, such as solar photovoltaics and energy storage systems in conjunction with buildings’ operations, are a critical component of connected communities in order to provide maximum benefits to building owners, occupants, the community, and the utility grid.
  5. More variety is better: In general, projects that connect more buildings of various types and greater load diversity (e.g., mixed-use developments) and a broad array of integrated technologies and distributed energy resources are better able to leverage multiple value streams.  The greater the extent to which a connected community incorporates the full spectrum of capabilities, the more likely it is that the connected community will be able to unlock the potential value.
  6. Share your assets: Where feasible, shared assets that are physically connected to multiple buildings such as on-site generation, energy storage, and thermal systems are likely to have better life-cycle costs than individual building level systems. This is due to potential lower first costs, lower operating and maintenance costs, and higher utilization per unit of installed capacity.

The case studies examined by Rocky Mountain Institute and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory illustrate that these key benefits of connected communities can be implemented in almost any multi-building use-case (including residential, commercial, mixed use, campuses, and non-contiguous portfolios). These connecting elements can be applied to existing communities, as well as to new construction. Some projects have realized fractions of the total value that connected communities enable, but to a large extent, the full potential remains untapped. While our report is a qualitative analysis of connected communities and their value, we are conducting a follow-up quantified case study to further validate the conclusions of this research.

As the economic and environmental benefits of connected communities become increasingly evident, we expect that this connected approach to optimizing energy use in our built environment will become commonplace. Someday soon, you might look out your window and see a building that is connected to yours, helping you reduce your utility costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Creating these community connections will physically manifest the interdependence that we all have in creating a better world.

Victor Olgyay is a principal architect directing RMI’s buildings practice. Seth Coan is a manager of RMI’s Shine program. This blog originally appeared on RMI’s blog and was reposted with permission.

About the Author

Guest Post

Propane Is a Sustainable Choice for Growing Microgrid Need

July 2, 2024
Construction professionals rely on propane’s lower emissions and enhanced resiliency

Get the full report

Impact of Optimal Controls in a Microgrid

Many commercial and industrial businesses are installing microgrids in order to lower their energy costs, reduce their carbon emissions, and bolster their resilience. Learn how...