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Connecting Communities for the Future

Vision 2030

How Connected Communities Can Increase Resiliency, Aid Decarbonization Efforts

The term “connected communities” is relatively new. In the past, buildings were considered standalone systems, and the grid was typically the domain of utilities. However, the industry is changing.

“Under the threat of climate change, we are faced with the need to decarbonize. This is best achieved by electrification and integration of distributed renewable energy sources. The connected-communities approach can unlock value and economies of scale for the client and the utility versus taking a building-by-building approach," said Jiri Skopek and Manish Sharma, members of ASHRAE’s Vision 2030 Connected Communities team.  

In an interview with ASHRAE Journal as part of the Vision 2030 seriesSkopek and Sharma discuss this approach and its challenges, including resiliency, the skilled-labor shortage and hybrid workspaces. 

Defining the Elements

What are “connected communities,” and why are they important for engineers to understand? 

The term “connected communities” is relatively new. In the past, buildings were considered standalone systems, and the grid was typically the domain of utilities.

To understand connected communities, we should think of them as an ecosystem that includes systems and people. For the ecosystem to thrive, communities need to have interconnected systems for energy and water management; smarter waste management; safety and security systems and transport and mobility systems. All of these interact with and are affected by community participation.

Resilience, sustainability and quality of life are central to building a safe, healthy and vibrant community where people live, work or meet and where businesses thrive. It is important for engineers to understand how connected community solutions that they design and build will enable these outcomes.  

Under the threat of climate change, we are faced with the need to decarbonize. This is best achieved by electrification and integration of distributed renewable energy sources. However, there are two challenges with renewables:  

  • Renewables input is intermittent, depending on when the sun shines and wind blows; and 
  • Building energy demand also fluctuates depending on the season, time of day and occupancy. This results in demand peaks which make the grid stability precarious. 

One solution to manage demand and supply peaks are so-called “grid-enabled” buildings that can “talk” to the grid and vice versa.

When several buildings are connected as “communities of buildings,” energy is no longer managed just at the individual building level. This makes it possible to manage multiple distributed energy resources and technologies at the multi-building scale by accommodating load flexibility and by integrating renewable energy generation and energy storage. 

This can be done with central controls (or intelligence) and shared systems, such as district thermal plants, community solar or energy storage installations. However, this requires knowledge and practice of both electrical and mechanical systems—which will have an impact on ASHRAE members.  

As the global energy and power system rapidly evolve over the next decade, buildings and their systems will be central to ensuring the transitions are affordable, reliable and clean. 

What are grid-interactive efficient buildings (GEBs), and what role do they play in decarbonization? 

GEBs are energy-efficient buildings with smart technologies, which are characterized by the active use of distributed energy resources (DERs) and are responsive to: 

  • The demand that will be put on the grid from electric vehicles;  
  • Occupant preferences; and 
  • Cost reduction.  

GEBs have the capability to shed, shift or modulate energy use in response to grid signals. Connected communities have software platform-enabling grid-interactivity at the multi-building scale.

By reducing and shifting the timing of electricity consumption, GEBs in North America alone could decrease CO2 emissions by 80 million tons per year by 2030, or 6% of total power sector CO2 emissions. That is more than the annual emissions of 50 medium-sized coal plants, or 17 million cars.1 

What are smart electrical grids? 

A smart grid—a key element of a connected community—is an electricity distribution network that enables a two-way flow of electricity and data with digital communications technology to detect, react and pro-act to changes in usage and multiple issues.

It is a platform that links and controls the numerous sources of supply and demand and automates their participation by interpreting the real time data and allowing bidirectional communication between the grid generators, e.g., power stations, distributed energy sources and end-users, such as housing, industry, commerce, electrical vehicles (EVs) and so on. 

What are the “three layers of smartness” and how they relate to communities within a smart city? 

A solution for smart communities should have three layers of smartness: 

  • The “sensory layer” consists of elements such as power distribution systems, utility meters, environment sensors, waste bin sensors, streetlight controllers, traffic controllers, parking sensors, EV charging stations, micromobility systems, building management systems, emergency call boxes, irrigation systems and internet protocol television systems. All of these connect to the community’s wired and wireless network infrastructure; 
  • The “IoT platform” layer provides the infrastructure to integrate, aggregate and analyze data streaming from the sensory layer. The IoT platform layer consists of core services, such as an IoT hub and service bus for integration, stream processing for autonomous anomaly detection, location intelligence services, analytics services and security and identity management for cyber security; and
  • The “outcomes layer” consists of specialized applications for transport management, streetlight management, etc., to operate and manage each of the systems within the community and across a domain community management application that monitors critical parameters of all systems and orchestrates workflows and processes across multiple systems and through people in the community. Together, these applications provide a system of records to monitor, a system of engagement to respond and a system of intelligence to optimize the operation of systems to deliver outcomes. 

What is the “hybrid workspace,” and how can businesses adjust? 

The “work-from-home” experiment caused by the pandemic has demonstrated it is possible to maintain productivity from home without being physically full-time at an office. A hybrid workplace accommodates in-office work, work from home and co-working.  

Building systems will need to be flexible to maintain comfort and indoor air quality (IAQ) conditions under different occupant density scenarios. The key to this may be model predictive control (MPC), which uses optimization over a sliding finite time horizon to find control strategies that optimize for selected criteria.  

A hybrid workspace allows employees to split their time and work between their home and their office. As we begin to come back from the pandemic, this is becoming popular with both employees and employers.

Providing a safe and productive environment for employees while also ensuring optimal resource utilization in physical office spaces are the challenges with a hybrid workspace. Flexible and agile workspaces, autonomous operations, increased digitalization of processes, pervasive collaboration tools and policies and procedures to guide employee and employer expectations are needed to ensure businesses can adjust to this new normal of hybrid workspaces. 

Applying the Concepts

How can integrated networks make heating and cooling processes more efficient? 

The connected-communities approach can unlock value and economies of scale for the client and the utility providers versus taking a building-by-building approach. For example, district thermal approaches have inherent efficiency advantages, lower costs, maintenance savings and a large potential for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction. 

Sophisticated automated controls, which enable load flexibility and price arbitrage, may be more achievable and cost-effective at the community scale. They also offer greater resiliency in response to fires, hurricanes, heat waves and flooding.  

Shifting of energy use away from peak periods can save utilities from the need to invest in generation capacity and delivery infrastructure while increasing reliability and resiliency.  

What are some city- and community-level challenges engineers could face when using some of these solutions? 

Engineers should be aware of challenges at three levels: system design, operations and governance. Community systems are diverse. Openness, support for standards and system integration are all key concerns during system design. City and community systems are large-scale systems, and a good solution should use built-in intelligence and automation so that system operations can deliver the desired outcomes.

There are multiple stakeholders that may own community or city systems, and for this reason it is critical to have a system governance framework that covers aspects such as security and data management. 

Because the connected-communities approach is relatively new, there are market, regulatory and technical challenges. Technical challenges relate to the following: 

  • Interoperability of systems and technologies: The slow adoption of open data models and communication protocols remains a barrier to progress in accelerating the implementation of connected communities; 
  • Integrated design process: Designing, modelling and analyzing how to optimize across multiple value streams—including energy cost savings, GHG reductions and resilience—is technically and logistically challenging; 
  • Cybersecurity: Ensuring networked solutions for multi-building energy management are secure from cyberthreat and cyberattack poses significant challenges but is paramount to gaining broader adoption of connected communities; 
  • Subsurface infrastructure installation: With district thermal and central thermal storage systems, there can be technical challenges associated with piping installation in some subsurface conditions as well as efficiency losses from transporting thermal energy over long distances. That said, ambient temperature loop systems—also referred to as “fifth-generation district heating and cooling networks”—can overcome heat loss issues.  

How is the skilled-labor shortage affecting how the industry is adopting these technologies? 

North America faces a critical shortage of building operators. With an average age of more than 40, building operators are the hardest employee candidates to find, yet are among the lowest paid workers in commercial and multifamily real estate.  

In addition, the level of sophistication of building systems requires greater skills to operate them. Without such skills, sophisticated building designs can perform worse than their old-fashioned counterparts.

Connected communities may require fewer operators than individual buildings, and the increased deployment of artificial intelligence (AI) can also ease the shortage of operators.  

Advances in connectivity technologies (e.g., 5G), computer technologies (e.g., cloud and edge) and analytics technologies (AI and machine learning) all have profound and sometimes disruptive implications for the industry. The industry has had similar inflection points in the past—for example, the advent of direct digital controls—and adapted to them.  

What is unique about the current wave of technologies is they are all pervasive and have implications for multiple industries. So, the availability of a skilled workforce impacts multiple industries. In the short term, skill shortage is likely to have an impact for almost all industries. However, there is also a tremendous opportunity for engineers in the building industry to upskill and work in concert with engineers who may bring in additional expertise in some of the new core technologies. 

Why is resiliency important? What are some solutions that exist to help communities respond to, withstand and recover from adverse situations? 

We are constantly reminded of the mammoth task of keeping the earth’s environment in tolerable conditions for human habitation and survival. Even as we race to achieve “net zero,” we cannot avoid the growing menaces and destruction caused by climate change: fires, hurricanes, heat waves and floods, all of which necessitate buildings and the grid become more resilient.  

For individual buildings, common-sense measures include not building in the floodplains, not placing the building’s equipment in flood-prone basements and properly securing rooftop mechanical equipment.  

Grid vulnerability is a greater challenge, but it can be solved thanks to connected communities. A community that has its own microgrid that includes supply from renewable energy sources and energy storage can provide an independent power supply in case of grid failure. The connected network of such community hubs increases resiliency through so called “fractal grids.” 

Resilience is important because it helps citizens, businesses and city administrations continue to deliver essential services and come back from shocks faster and stronger. Events of the past year have proven that we must be in a state of readiness.

Examples of solutions and technologies to enable this include disaster recovery systems; cyber resilience; remote operations; predictive early warning systems; command and control and emergency responses systems; digital twins; distributed energy and micromobility. 


1 U.S. Department of Energy. May 17, 2021. “A National Roadmap for Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings.” 


Olgyay V., S. Coan, B. Webster, W. Livingood. May 2020. “Connected Communities: A Multi-Building Energy Management Approach.” Technical Report Series. Technical report NREL/TP-5500-75528. 

U.S. Department of Energy. December 2019. “Grid-interactive Efficient Buildings,” Whole-Building Controls, Sensors, Modeling, and Analytics.