Dan Suyeyasu on water, energy, and making regulations enticing

As a senior consultant to Arup specializing in energy and resource policy, Dan Suyeyasu focuses on projects that take smart, sustainable building design practices and apply them across the new-construction built environment. His path to Arup included seven years as an environmental lawyer, working at Environmental Defense Fund with Tom Graff, one of the godfathers of environmental policy. Dan tells us about California water law, building-energy policy, and developing dynamic platforms that bring new life to old codes.


What kind of policy work do you do at Arup?

I research how energy regulations should be structured. Once you have a sense of how you want buildings to perform, how do you structure a law to make that happen universally? Because you can have a vision of how buildings should work, but you may not be able to execute the vision within the constraints of a regulation.

Arup is comparatively new to this type of policy practice in California. We’re trying to spread the deep understanding that Arup has in building design across a much larger volume of construction — the hundreds of millions of square feet that are affected by state energy policies.

Why did you go into law initially?

I had an interest in environmental policy and solving environmental problems. At the time, the broader need in addressing environmental problems seemed to be more on the advocacy side than in understanding the technical side of a problem. I ultimately went into water law, working on long-term discussions over where California’s freshwater should go, between the farms and the cities and the environment. But at some point I realized that arguing was not really for me. I was much more interested in figuring out the technical solutions to problems.

California water law is fascinating; the law and the engineering is almost irrelevant — it’s the history and the connections and the social network that goes back to events in the early 1900s that set the table for everything. So it’s a fascinating issue to grapple with, but I don’t think there’s much in the policy world that moves slower than California water law. The world of energy is moving at light speed in comparison.

How else is it different to work in energy?

The big difference between water and energy is that with water, prices are often set from the time someone first starts using it. There were people settling in California and taking water before 1900, and those water users still have that right today. Many water users are not evolving with a market where prices are regularly updated.

Whereas with energy, almost everybody pays the current market price for energy. So even people who consume a lot of energy have an interest in conserving it because it’s going to save them a lot of money. It’s not just good for the environment; it can be a big economic gain.

A challenge in the world of energy regulations is to make the price or the value of the regulations much more transparent. What are these regulations worth to building owners and to the environment? Are these regulations just burdens, or do they create a benefit?

Yeah, it seems like communication is an important bridge between the law and the market.

Yes, you have to sell people on it. I was speaking with a friend who develops enterprise software but has also worked on consumer software. She was asking me about my work and was trying to frame it in her own context. She asked, “Are you developing enterprise regulations or consumer regulations?” And I was like, “That’s an interesting question? How would I know?”

She then explained the difference: “Well, with enterprise software, the developer can make it work however they want, because there’s usually a boss at the top of a pyramid telling everybody below them, This is what you’re going to use. And then the software just has to execute on the functional attributes that you want, and everybody’s going to use it because they don’t have any choice but to use it.”

And that’s the enterprise model. Whereas the consumer model, people are going to use it only if they want to use it, only if it works well for them.

And regulations have always been seen as strictly an enterprise-type operation. But the reality is, the management hierarchy out there in the regulatory world is not as tightly structured as it might be within a corporation, so we need to put a lot more consumer design qualities into the regulations if we’re going to maximize the value.

Have you read any Edward Tufte?

Yeah. What’s exciting now is that communication can be very dynamic. With our client deliverables, we’re trying to provide not just static information but something where as people adjust inputs and outputs, they see the energy results of what they’re thinking about in real time. Then they start to see relationships and patterns, and hopefully gain much more insight.

What are the most important energy-efficiency measures for California right now? And what roadblocks do they face?

Arup just completed a long-term planning study for the state of California looking at this exact question. Within the traditional scope of building engineering, the big breakthrough is going to come in LED lighting. LEDs are a massive change in technology and possibilities.

Fluorescent efficiency has been plateauing to some degree. The LEDs are going to break through that plateau and be two to three times more efficient than what we have right now.

Do codes regulate lighting types? Or is there flexibility within the market?

Yes and no. Lighting is regulated, but there is plenty of room for improvement above the regulated levels. What goes into regulations is, by definition, the lowest common denominator. It’s not the ceiling.

But to make sure that people don’t subvert the law, we actually have to take away a lot of the flexibility that would be helpful for people who are trying to do innovative new things. A lot of what goes into writing regulations is making sure that people don’t cheat. That’s a challenge, and there’s sort of no way around that, because you’ve got everyone working within a single regulatory framework, some trying to use flexibility for good and some using it to dodge the rules.

Other than LEDs, most of what needs to be improved at this point involves the plug loads inside buildings.

To make sure that people don’t subvert the law, we actually have to take away a lot of the flexibility that would be helpful for people who are trying to do innovative new things

What affects that? Beyond turning your computer off at night?

It’s three things: efficient equipment, less redundant equipment, and getting things to shut off on their own.

Historically, building and equipment operations have followed a just-in-case theory: rooms are cooled or lighted, and equipment is on, just in case somebody shows up. But now we have sensors that are much cheaper and better integrated that can shut things off either predictively or reactively based on what exactly is happening. A lot more energy use is going to be just-in-time energy use, meaning it is delivered only when needed.

So are those part of code now?

Yes, the obvious one is lighting sensors — primarily occupancy sensors. The sleep function on your computer is the same thing. Those systems are becoming more pervasive.

Rooms below a certain square footage must have occupancy sensors, and that square footage is getting smaller and smaller as the switches become easier and cheaper to install. It used to be that you’d have to have an occupancy sensor within an office, but it could be one sensor for an entire 5,000ft2 of desks. Now there are companies that have the sensors embedded on each light fixture. They can put light only where people are sitting.

What kind of challenges do you face in your field? Problems that you’ve found your way around?

What I like to do comes from working at Environmental Defense Fund, where they often tried to figure out market-based solutions to big problems. So that’s what I try to do with building-energy regulations as much as possible. You know what the problem is and you have some sense of how you’d like people to do better, but if possible you don’t want to tell them, “This is the exact path, this is exactly what you have to do.” You just want to set the systems so they achieve the ultimate goal in terms of energy use, but they can get there however they want. The more flexibility you build into the system and the more you let market dynamics take care of it, the more likely we are to reach our goals. It’ll be easier; it’ll be cheaper.

But it’s not always possible. Sometimes you just have to tell people, “This is exactly what you have to do.” But wherever possible you want to think about backing off the inclination to be too bossy about the issue and figure out, what is it you really want? It’s all about the energy; it’s not specifically about the motion control sensor or this particular type of fixture. And people want that flexibility when they’re designing buildings.

What other projects would you like to be working on? What can you bring to other projects, and what kind of people and input are you looking for on your projects?

One of the things I’m most excited about is Arup’s geographic distribution. While there is communication within the policy development field between regions, I don’t think there is as much sharing of solutions between those regions as there could be.

Something that works well in California should be shared with Texas, something that works well in Texas should be shared with Massachusetts… If something tried in California doesn’t work well, it’s also important to share that experience elsewhere. That information can be distributed quite readily within a well-networked organization like Arup. And the unwritten lessons that are readily shared within Arup — between our offices — are often of far more value than the printed reports that we can all find on the internet.

So I would like to slowly build bridges in the policy development area between the San Francisco office and the other offices so that as other regions move to develop new policies in the building-energy-efficiency sphere, those regions don’t have to start from scratch. Many policy problems have largely been solved somewhere else, one way or another. And as we encounter new problems to solve locally, it is great to think about bringing in folks from around the globe to tackle them.

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