As the technology needed for energy-efficiency races ahead, the government and private industries alike are hustling to keep up.

As part of this effort, the Department of Energy’s “Building Technologies Office (BTO) recently made an exciting announcement. It will be investing over $3 million in a series of 5 pilot projects aimed at improving the energy-efficiency of the nation’s commercial buildings.

This spending initiative is designed to drive innovation in multisystem technology packages. It’s success will ultimately rely upon the combined efforts of both public energy consultancies and non-governmental agencies, utilities, and technology providers.

Dr. Lester Shen is the Director of Innovative Technologies at his nonprofit group, the Center for Energy & Efficiency (CEE). CEE is now tasked with overseeing the 5 pilot projects.


Their mission is to promote energy-efficiency to strengthen the economy and improve the environment. For installers looking to get a piece of the action, be sure to check out the full scope of the project in this press release.

We recently had the chance to catch up with Les about the upcoming pilot programs. We had a hunch that you, our loyal readers, would be curious to hear what we learned during our conversations.

So let’s dive in and cover what we learned ourselves about the program and the thinking behind the funding awards that will soon be rolled out on a national level.

The Energy-Efficiency Program

The Department of Energy (DOE) is a federal agency and this program is national in scope. For practical reasons however, all 5 of the pilot projects will be based out of Minnesota.

This can easily translate to a national model later on since the projects deal with more universal issues like Power over Ethernet (PoE) deployments in commercial buildings. They’ll also deal with lighting, plug loads, and HVAC controls.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other ways in which energy-efficiency can be improved upon, and we can expect the DOE to continue looking into them as this program progresses.

We’re looking forward to the impact these improvements can have on jobs, money savings, and quality of work environments.

How Dr. Shen Began this Research

PlanetechUSA: How did all of this start for you personally?

Dr. Shen: “I’ve always been interested in doing work in the environmental or energy related fields. I started in environmental as an undergrad. That moved me toward energy and then finally engineering.”

PlanetechUSA: How did you get involved in this pilot project?

Dr. Shen: “They had a FOA–a funding opportunity announcement. It’s like an RFP–request for proposals only it’s less defined.

As a research group we often have ideas and try to get funding. We generate ideas, that lead to proposals, and hopefully find funding sources for our research. In one sense, it’s kind of an academic model. But it’s actually more of a research model. If we’re going to try to learn some new things, then typically the private sector looks for something they can market right away.

As researchers, we’re looking toward general knowledge and information. Some typical sources would be government grants and any other support type funding.

What led me to this project was that I was already doing energy-efficiency research on data centers. “

Data Centers and Business Learnings

Dr. Shen: “We were looking at how you could make data centers more energy efficient. And so, the obvious pieces were IT equipment and cooling equipment. This was for embedded datacenters [collocation as opposed to strictly in the cloud].

We looked at all of the IT equipment–network switches included. In addition to providing network services, they also power PoE devices like phones and access points.

And, it became clear that PoE was an energy user more than just those devices. A lot of manufacturers are coming out with phone and PoE lighting. What we saw was there is an opportunity to make use of IT Staff.”

An Opportunity to Empower IT StaffDatacenter Stat

“One interesting finding from our study is that even though offices run 40 hours a week, data centers run 24/7. That means about 60 percent of the time, the datacenter is running for no reason at all.

We thought we should look at operational efficiency and opportunities. Are there ways we can put equipment on standby or even turn them off? We asked why all of the phones were on. Could facilities turn off PoE devices when not in use?

All the major network switch manufacturers have network switch software that enable managers to do that, and IT Staff weren’t even aware of it.

Once you know you’re able to do that, these smaller offices, where they don’t do energy management at all, can now have IT Staff–who are onsite anyway–do energy management.

Energy management requires skills like:

  • Working on dashboards
  • Scheduling

This is exactly what IT Staff typically does and are trained for, which is kind of what led us to this conclusion.”

Reframing the Opportunity for Energy-Efficiency

“Network switches provide power to equipment in the offices. Offices use energy. How do we reduce the energy that these offices use?

Most importantly, how do you work with those people who have that ability to manage. It’s operations! We’re interested in technology but we’re really interested in operational efficiency and how to facilitate that.

IT Staff have the expertise and skills necessary. They also deal with all of the network devices: office equipment, phones, PoE lights etc.

They’re the ones that are overseeing the network anyway.

So, from an energy management perspective, you already have the staff in place. In a way, it’s educating the staff, training them, and seeing what the opportunities are.

The staff is going to be there. They’re required. The offices are going to have IT support staff. I think in the future, their responsibilities are going to be more about network operations instead of server operations.”

The Coming Evolution of IT’s Role

“As things go into the cloud, we’re going to see fewer and fewer servers in data centers. They’re going to be dealing less with servers, and less with storage, but you’re still going to have the network.

You’re going to have network switches, network closets, etc that will all still need to be maintained.IT Staff

So, you’re always going to have IT Staff around. This energy management piece is a task that requires a skillset IT team members have already mastered. I think the case can be made that this is perfect, not just for that workforce. It’s an expansion of their role that I think they should be willing and excited about.

They’re not going anywhere, they’re evolving.

This helps separate the two responsibility sets. Facility staff, their role is more mechanical. They’re not dealing with programming and dashboards and the electronic piece. You’d have to train them extensively to take on energy management.

IT Staff on the other hand already knows how to do most of this. They know about sensors, and scheduling, and monitoring. The ones with the wrenches are still needed but a broader group of specialties is now needed that the IT Staff member can provide.”

Rethinking Energy Management

“As technology gets better and more efficient, so will the way we work. As energy consumption continues to drop and devices become simpler and more connected, networks will allow managers better visibility and greater spend control.

One reason PoE is so popular is the combination of energy and data delivery. That union will allow the variety and application of smart devices throughout the work environment. And, the people who will manage these technologies are the ones for whom it’s the easiest and most cost effective to deploy… IT staff.”

We trust you’ve enjoyed this look into the mind of a brilliant research team and the man at the helm. We’re equally proud to be at the forefront of this burgeoning industry as a leader in PoE networking switches, hubs, injectors, and extenders.

Special thanks to Dr. Lester Shen for providing such useful and detailed insights!

Thus far, some of the projects selected for funding include:

Using Network Switches to Operate and Control Lighting and Plug Loads in Commercial Building Office Spaces Led by the Minnesota Center for Energy and Environment, this team proposes to research and validate energy and cost savings opportunities using existing power over Ethernet (PoE) infrastructure to power and automate lighting, plugs and HVAC system controls. Partners include a PoE consultant, plug control provider, architecture and engineering firms, Xcel Energy and CBRE.