Industry partners use ORNL software to trim carbon footprint of buildings

Two years after the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory provided a model of almost every building in America, commercial partners are using the tool for tasks ranging from designing energy-efficient buildings and cities to linking energy efficiency to property value and risk . International companies like Google and SmithGroup share the benefits by making the resulting data publicly available. With the building sector accounting for 40% of America’s energy use, increasing its efficiency is critical to national decarbonization goals.

Dozens of companies have requested data from ORNL’s Automatic Building Energy Modeling Software Suite, or AutoBEM, project lead Joshua New said. He and his team developed AutoBEM using high-performance computing to process layers of imagery containing information about individual buildings, such as: B. their size, use, building materials and heating and cooling technologies.

“The unifying theme is the creation of a digital twin of our nation’s buildings,” New said. “We can simulate market-relevant opportunities to reduce energy consumption and offset them with renewable sources.”

The software has simulated energy use for 123 million buildings, representing 98% of US buildings. The New team is updating the software this year for even more detail and accuracy in building.

Google uses AutoBEM to enhance its free Environmental Insights Explorer tool, launched in 2018 to help cities around the world identify greenhouse gas sources and reduction opportunities. Saleem Van Groenou, product manager for Environmental Insights Explorer, said Google wants to integrate more accurate energy efficiency simulations for buildings.

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“Oak Ridge has much deeper expertise in building energy systems and modeling management and response than we do,” said Van Groenou. “We can now help cities focus more on what changes should be made and then track the impact of those changes over time.”

Google combines its building data base with ORNL’s ability to scale energy models and develop machine learning algorithms, Van Groenou said.

Google is one of five major companies contributing data, staff time and equipment to AutoBEM partnerships.

Most users of AutoBEM focus on existing buildings, but SmithGroup, an international architecture and engineering firm, takes the approach of incorporating efficiency from the first design.

“Our interest in AutoBEM and collaborating with the lab stems from an urgent need to scale our work in response to climate change,” said Stet Sanborn, who leads the ORNL collaboration for SmithGroup. “The number of buildings we have to touch and the speed we need to do it exceeds what any individual could do in a lifetime. And that’s what we need to do over the next five years.” He pointed out that AutoBEM’s ability to run 200,000 energy models in less than an hour is equivalent to one person working full-time for 365 years.

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For SmithGroup, ORNL simulated every possible combination of design parameters, building types and US climate zones. This information was used to train an artificial intelligence tool that essentially allows the company to pre-simulate the energy impact of each design option for each building.

AutoBEM also includes climate change scenarios identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and modeled by the Climate Change Science Institute at ORNL. This feature caught the attention of partner LightBox, which offers a platform for mapping and analyzing real estate information.

“As a leader in the commercial real estate and location intelligence industry, we offer new datasets critical to understanding emerging risks,” said Zach Wade, LightBox vice president of data science. “LightBox plans to use AutoBEM to model the long-term energy and operating costs of buildings and to help understand and report greenhouse gas emissions, providing valuable information for real estate investors, brokers, lenders and banks, appraisers, engineers and environmental consultancies. ”

In turn, LightBox and other partners will benefit AutoBEM by contributing datasets such as building footprints, interior details, property lines, and financial information to improve future simulations.

In addition, partners such as SmithGroup and Google have committed to sharing datasets created with AutoBEM. “The entire market needs to change, and this is where the relationship with AutoBEM becomes incredibly important,” said Sanborn. “We don’t want to keep a secret sauce or limit everyone’s ability to increase efficiency in response to a true climate emergency.”

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Other AutoBEM partners include glass manufacturer Cardinal Glass Industries and Bentley Systems, a software company for infrastructure engineering. Cardinal Glass, which supplies window manufacturers, uses the tool to understand the energy efficiency of different window types in different regions and climate scenarios compared to other efficiency improvements. Bentley Systems is exploring how city-scale digital twins and building energy models can be used to optimize building design and decarbonization.

“The biggest surprise has been the level of interest from companies and the breadth of data modeling or analysis that they are requesting,” New said.

AutoBEM development, expansion, and collaborations are funded by the DOE’s Office of Electricity, the Building Technologies Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and the National Nuclear Security Administration. The research team used supercomputing resources at Argonne National Laboratory.

UT-Battelle manages the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. As the largest single funder of basic science research in the United States, the Office of Science works to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. Visit for more information

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