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Wildfire threat on commercial real estate, can smart buildings help?

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Natalie Patton

Millions of people and businesses throughout California are facing up to a week without power as wildfire risks peak across the state.

Due to increasingly intense fire seasons, public utilities are shifting strategies toward prevention, especially as power lines have been blamed for some of the state’s most destructive conflagrations (leaving utilities on the hook for millions in damages). All of that is to say, extended blackouts are going to become more common, even as  debate about the effectiveness of that strategy continues.

In places where electricity is unreliable, businesses already build-in the cost of back-up power. But in much of the urban United States, we haven't given much thought to what a day (not to mention seven) without power will do to us.

Particularly for California’s Bay Area, where OTI is headquartered along with some of the country’s most valuable corporations, wildfire threats and the blackouts that now accompany them are creeping into urban centers, thus impacting greater swaths of the economy. Without power, business obviously comes to a halt. Think about just the last time your internet was down – what did you and your colleagues do in the way of work? Probably not much.

How to lessen the impact of blackouts on commercial real estate

Mission-critical facilities like data centers and hospitals are better prepared for blackouts because they've built back-up power into their budgets and their building management systems. In most cases at these facilities it's as easy as the flick of a switch to get critical systems back up and running. It remains to be seen, though, if these facilities are prepared to withstand the duration of these outages, as threats lengthen and utilities become ever-more cautious. 

Beyond redundant back-up generators, which probably isn't yet necessary for the majority of California's commercial buildings, we wish we could say there are things you can integrate into your BAS to minimize the impact of power outages on your building and the people who work, live and play inside it. While buildings and the systems contained therein are always going to need power to operate, now may be a good time to start reconsidering the source of that power. 

Enter: solar panels and on-site energy storage. Though the up-front investment for these devices can be immense, the threat of rolling blackouts for nearly a full quarter of the year may change the equation for some commercial building owners and operators. Another way to tip the scales in favor of alternative energy is to consider how an integration into your BAS can precipitate reductions in grid energy purchases during normal business days, too.

What to look for when the power comes back

For buildings already running complex automation schemas and enterprise management platforms or analytics, remember that these blackouts will impact your data. You’ll want to work with your MSI to make note within your system of outages so that you can account for any unexpected changes in analysis or predictions.

When power is restored, it’s worth having a thorough look through your alarm reports to both disregard the alerts that were sent as a result of the outage and to make sure everything turned back on as expected.

The new "New Normal"

It's safe to assume the strategy of preemptive blackouts is going to continue and spread throughout wildfire-prone areas of California. For buildings looking to invest in system retrofits or energy efficiency upgrades, it's worthwhile to add considerations for loss of power into your plans. There may not be a lot of options currently available to reduce the impact on building operations, but once you start exploring new possibilities in power, you may be surprised at the number of boxes you can check with alternative energies.

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