How to Help Your Hotel Become Net-Zero

There are a variety of important steps hoteliers can take to reach carbon net-zero targets. Learn what they are in this Q&A with Andre Marino of Schneider Electric.
Michal Christine Escobar
Senior Editor (Hotels)
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cityscape where half the buildings are promoting environmental sustainable practices and half are not

According to the United Nations, to stay on track with the Paris Climate Accords, participating nations must reduce their total greenhouse emissions 45% by 2030. While many consumers are working hard to reduce their personal carbon footprint, buildings are often overlooked as large producers of CO2 emissions. In fact, 40% of today's CO2 emissions come from buildings - estimated to be around 18.3 billion tons. As an industry, hotel brands have access to a variety of solutions that can truly help their buildings reach achievable decarbonization goals. To learn more about these solutions, HT spoke with Andre Marino, SVP, Digital Buildings at Schneider Electric.

  1. How can buildings become net-zero? What technology is necessary to reduce, eliminate or capture CO2 emissions from buildings?

The path to decarbonization can be complex, but it doesn’t have to be. There are four key steps that sustainability stakeholders — such as building investors, developers, owners, and operators — must consider to reach net zero carbon targets – Strategize, Digitize, Decarbonize, and Optimize.

The first step, Strategize, usually takes place at the corporate level. Whether it’s a boutique hotel or an international chain, hotel owners need to start by defining what success looks like. Many organizations are striving to be net zero by 2050, and although the year seems very far away, reaching net zero carbon status is a big goal, so they must structure their decarbonization roadmap into smaller achievable milestones. They also need to determine how they will fund their initiatives along the way, how and who they want to communicate their commitment to and who they will report results back to—whether that’s to external ESG organizations, employees, and even guests.

From there, in the Digitize step, organizations need to bring their facility leaders on board to ensure there’s no gap between the strategic ambition and the practical steps needed to make that vision a reality. That starts with understanding your baseline energy and carbon emissions data. To unlock that data in older buildings, facility managers often need to modernize building systems with the latest in digital technology. This includes smart sensors to capture data, an open building management system that can aggregate and display that data back to you in visual dashboards, and advanced analytics in order to accurately establish baseline measurements.

After this, true action can take place in the Decarbonize step.A good place to start is by swapping out carbon-intensive energy sources such as oil, coal, and gas for newer, cleaner, electric options. Buildings on average waste up to 30% of their energy, so look for opportunities to reduce energy intensity, for example by utilizing smart sensors to understand occupancy levels and adjusting HVAC in those areas accordingly. This will in turn reduce carbon emissions and energy-related operating expenses. Of course, renewables need to be considered as an integral part of the plan, including the use of microgrids for improved power reliability, as well as storage of self-generated energy and grid-interactivity. In addition to tackling the carbon emissions challenge in your building operations, hotels should also look to source low carbon materials and work with suppliers who are committed to sustainability and controlling embodied carbon throughout the full value chain and lifecycle of the building. 

Finally, in Optimize, hotels need to understand that sustainability is not a “one and done” action. It’s a continuous process and evolution of monitoring and reporting, while setting your sights on the next target and potentially pursuing green certification. 

  1. How can this technology be extended to hotels? Is there a difference structurally between a hotel's energy consumption and any other commercial building?

It is strongly recommended for facility managers and hotel operators to build a digital model of their structure in order to test and have full visibility on the integrity of their environment. Important facets of the architecture must be accounted for and addressed, such as thermal and acoustic installation, the serviceability of the structure, maintenance and more. The overall building design requires a digital model so that the process for testing and improving the building envelope is seamless.

Hotels consume more energy the higher their space utilization reaches. The difference between hotels and commercial buildings lies in the use case for hotels — they are unpredictable at times when it comes to room occupancy and energy use.

The best hotel architecture in terms of energy savings and optimized occupancy usage comes with LEED-certified operations and building construction, which provides a comprehensive framework for buildings following a cost-effective, green layout for their operation. This is achieved through software solution adoption, using data-driven design and improvement measures to automate occupancy energy needs and regulate hotel energy consumption.

Systems installed to, for example, adjust the temperature of a room 5 minutes after guests leave ensure that hotel ventilation requirements are met and that building energy expenditures are aligned appropriately with the needs of the occupant environment. These solutions adhere to more energy conscious settings, save on energy costs and help lower a structure’s carbon emissions.

  1. What infrastructure/installments are necessary for buildings, especially hotels, to begin producing their own energy sustainably?

Renewable energy systems like solar farms attached to hotels or geothermal cooling that provide sustainable air conditioning bring together elements of efficient energy consumption that will create the next generation of buildings.

The IntenCity Office Building in Grenoble, France serves as an effective example to showcase net-zero carbon infrastructure that uses end-to-end digital solutions and renewable energy sources to generate that net-zero status. The site generates over 920 MWh of energy per year with 4,000 square meters of photovoltaic panels, as well as two wind turbines and on-site energy storage using a powerful shared microgrid in partnership with the city of Grenoble.

As the costs for solar panels, microgrid storage technology and retrofits continue to fall, occupant services through both commercial buildings and hotels will see more power come from efficient, sustainable energy resources and grid connections.

  1. What does it look like for an older building to be retrofitted with the technology and systems needed to make it net-zero?

50% of today’s buildings are likely to be still in use by 2050. This is driving commercial buildings to digitize their assets, including modernizing their building management system. Older buildings must be assessed for fitness but the work to transform these buildings into sustainable, zero-carbon structures is very possible.

One of the greatest opportunities to reduce emissions worldwide is through retrofitting buildings like hotels and commercial structures, and the benefits don’t stop at sustainability. In addition to lower energy costs, enhanced energy storage and an improved architectural profile for the building, retrofits improve the property value and functionality of the structure itself, improving CapEx investments ensuring that the real estate isn’t left to become a “stranded asset.”

One action building operators can take is adopt energy attribute certificates, or EACs, to keep building operations and energy mechanisms in line with the policies managers have for a greener environment. This is especially important for transforming existing hotels into sustainable, zero-carbon structures, as certifications and credibility help hotel management secure competitive sourcing of energy resources and contract management for retrofits. The feasibility of turning existing hotels to net-zero is not just a grand opportunity to reduce emissions — it also provides healthy return on investments for owners and operators.

Through proven net zero processes, retrofitting existing hotels and buildings are among the most effective ways to lower carbon emissions across commercial and architectural projects, allowing businesses to not only offset emissions but generate sustainable, clean energy for the building and other structures to use.

  1. What's the correlation between building/hotel occupancy and energy consumption, and how does the architecture of a building impact that?

What’s obvious is that more occupants mean more energy consumption, but delving deeper into the issue, sometimes space utilization remains high even when occupancy falls.

Performance tracking and reporting become essential here, as hotels may not realize that some areas of the architecture may not have shut off for hours or even days after occupancy or utilization has fallen. Addressing these areas of concern is key to efficient energy deployments, and leaders who know how to address inflexible energy consumption in building and hotel spaces are one step closer to making their structure net-zero. Buildings are much more prepared to efficiently distribute and consume energy when energy needs for high occupancy intervals and low occupancy intervals are all accounted for.

The architecture of a building here must also place an emphasis on design as part of its decarbonization strategy. Decarbonized construction means designing the structure so that occupants can reach, utilize, request, or share items or amenities in the hotel or commercial space with the appropriate energy allotted from the structure. Shortening walks through smart hallway and pathway design lowers the need for higher HVAC energy consumption, and advanced insulated walls can naturally lower the energy profile of a building and push the structure towards net-zero status.