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Ask the Expert: Simon Mugo

Simon Mugo, Project Manager, Willdan Energy Solutions

In the world of real estate technology, one of the most noteworthy fields is green tech. Now more than ever, managers are looking to revamp their buildings with fresh technology that will not only make buildings more eco-friendly, but will also create a more efficient unit that will better appeal to prospective tenants.

In light of this trend, we sat down with Simon Mugo, a project manager at Willdan Energy Solutions, to get the inside scoop on what tech makes a green building tick. Mugo serves as the implementation contractor of Con Edison’s Commercial Direct Install program as well as the Multifamily Energy Efficiency Program (MFEEP). Mugo specifically works on the Con Ed Multifamily Program, a position he has held since 2016. In this capacity, he works to provide support to building owners and contractors currently undertaking building energy efficiency upgrades.

Why do you think it’s so important for managers to implement more green tech in their buildings to increase energy efficiency?

 Beyond the environmental impact, investments in green technologies improve your bottom line. Tenant comfort increases productivity and reduced energy costs are all possible outcomes of using green systems. I use green technologies throughout this article as a catchall term referring to any technology that improves building energy efficiency, lowers environmental impact, and improves user health and comfort.

 What advice would you give to a manager looking to increase energy efficiency in his/her building?

To retain an engineering consultant to conduct an energy audit of the building. Energy audits/surveys provide a holistic snapshot of the building and identify opportunities for energy savings and improved tenant comfort. This is a great first step that should be used to prioritize and sequence energy efficiency upgrades at the building. Energy audit reports also detail the potential energy savings from each recommendation, along with the estimated payback period and available grant and incentive opportunities.

Overall, what has been the real estate industry’s reaction to green tech/new energy efficiency incentive programs?

Overall, I would say the industry has embraced new, energy efficient technologies. The real estate market in New York is very competitive and green technologies have been used as a means of attracting and retaining tenants.

Green technologies, such as high efficiency HVAC systems, lighting, and advanced building controls, reduce energy use while improving tenant comfort. Buildings with outdated controls may have a harder time maintaining their competitiveness in the market.

Energy efficiency programs typically offered by local utilities and State agencies provide financial incentive to reduce the cost of installing energy efficient green tech. Most property managers have successfully leveraged these programs to achieve their energy use reduction goals in a cost-effective manner.

What new, game-changing green tech is on the horizon? How will this impact the real estate industry?

I believe machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled building controls are at the cutting-edge of green tech. To provide some context, most buildings currently have sensors and computerized controls which enable the building to maintain rigid pre-set conditions. Examples of these are Energy Management Systems which utilize building sensors to directly control HVAC systems and maintain optimum indoor temperatures. These systems are very intelligent but are still heavily reliant upon human input (typically facilities managers). These managers utilize their expert knowledge and years of experience to adjust the pre-set conditions to ensure tenant comfort. In these cases, having a well-informed facility manager is critical to ensure optimum building operations.

In the future, advanced AI-enabled systems could leverage years of facility management expertise and using machine learning to enable buildings to become fully automated and less reliant on human input.

What are some of the industry’s worst practices when it comes to waste? How can green tech solve this?

Regarding electricity waste, the use of inefficient lighting is the most obvious source of energy waste in buildings. LED lighting has experienced significant cost reductions over the past five years and therefore cost is no longer a barrier. Utility providers also offer substantial incentives, reducing the payback to under a year in most cases.

In terms of gas usage, a lack of proper air vent maintenance (one pipe steam systems) results in a significant amount of gas waste across the five boroughs. Over time vents may fail due to normal wear and tear, damage resulting from wet steam, and blockage from being painted. Painted vents are very common particularly in steam-heated multifamily buildings, since apartments receive a fresh coat of paint frequently to maintain building aesthetics. Painters in most cases are unaware of the importance of the vents, and thus paint them freely. Property managers should update their building operation protocols to prevent any painting of radiator and steam riser air vents. Once painted, these air vents prevent the system from ejecting air between heating cycles and thus restricting free movement of steam throughout the building. This is the root cause of several heating issues in NYC buildings resulting in cold apartments and high gas bills. Local utility programs have developed incentive opportunities to address this important issue and building owners should contact their local utility to inquire about incentive opportunities for their steam systems.

 How can one become more educated on LEED and the importance of energy efficiency?

The Urban Green Council would be a great resource, as they are the local affiliate of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). USGBC is the non-profit organization which developed the LEED certification program. Urban Green offers several events and educational workshops which are useful in learning more about LEED certification program.

How have you seen LEED certification programs and the energy efficiency sector evolve since you’ve been in business? Where do you think it’s going next?

Yes, I’ve seen significant changes since joining the energy industry. Overall, I believe energy efficiency has become more mainstream and benefits of technology such as LED lighting are now widely understood. I have also noted an increase in the use of green certification systems beyond LEED. One example is the WELL Standard, which is the first green building standard to focus primarily on the tenant health and wellness. Another example is Passive House, which is a rigorous standard that prioritizes energy performance.

Regarding where it’s going next, I believe plug loads will become more energy efficient as consumers become more cognizant of their energy usage. Household appliances and similar equipment will also become increasingly more connected and able to receive and send signals to the grid. This will allow for optimized use of energy in response to usage spikes and projected high usage periods. A good example is the Smart AC program currently run by Con Edison. This program rewards customers for setting their AC units to a higher set-point during periods of increased usage when the grid is strained. Setting a higher set-point reduces the unit’s energy demand and thus improves the overall integrity of the electric grid. In the future, this will become more prevalent allowing optimal scheduling for daily tasks such as dishwashing and clothes washing.

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