Korea to bankroll ’smart’ Chicago skyscrapers

By Julie Wernau
Posted July 21, 2010 at 12:00 a.m.

By dimming lights or lowering water temperature on a massive scale, the owners of some of Chicago’s signature skyscrapers are banking on new technology that would dramatically cut the city’s energy usage and save millions of dollars.

The technology is being bankrolled by an unusual source: The Republic of Korea, which, under a complex agreement to be signed today, has agreed to install energy-saving equipment in up to 14 Chicago buildings during the next few months. Korean officials have pledged to pay millions to Illinois colleges for research and development efforts related to “smart grid” technology.

The Koreans have agreed to invest between $10 and $20 million in the buildings project and upwards of $25 million that would include money for research and development related to smart grid.

The organization that represents most of Chicago’s downtown buildings said if the project were expanded to the entire downtown, the energy savings would be enough to shutter a coal-fired power plant. The project is a first-of-its-kind attempt to position Illinois as an industry leader in smart grid efforts, which some ambitiously predict could become an engine for high-paying jobs.

Korea has already invested billions in the technology and is wiring homes and buildings in the south island of Jeju as a demonstration project and plans to expand its smart grid to the entire country by 2030.

In Chicago, people who work in the skyscrapers might not notice the new automated tweaks. The technology enables buildings to communicate back and forth with operators of the electric grid, drawing down power during peak demand hours that reap payments for “returning” energy to the constantly fluctuating power market, said Michael Cornicelli, executive vice president of BOMA/Chicago, whose members represent most of Chicago’s office buildings.

“This has been done on a very limited basis in campus-like settings or individual office buildings, but not to this scale,” he said.

Between four and 14 buildings will be selected for the pilot, Cornicelli said, mostly commercial office buildings but a smaller portion will be large residential buildings. Korean engineers are evaluating 20 buildings that have volunteered for the project and the selection process could be completed this month. Cornicelli did not provide the names of those buildings that have volunteered but confirmed that the Aon Center is one of the buildings.

How many buildings are selected will depend on how much retrofitting is needed to automate the systems of the selected buildings. For instance, HVAC systems in the buildings would need to be outfitted with a variable speed motor – essentially the equivalent of a dimmer switch – in order to be a part of the automated system. Similar retrofits would need to be made to lighting and other energy using technology in the buildings, he said.

“Buildings produce 40 percent or greater of greenhouse gases…In a building like the Aon Center or the Hancock, you have a self-contained environment that has an economic incentive to achieve efficiency and thus improve operating costs,” said Matthew Summy, president and CEO of the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, part of a partnership that includes state and city officials, buildings owners, several Korean companies and the Korean government.

Choi Kyunghwan, Korea’s minister of knowledge economy, called the Korean and U.S. governments “matchmakers” who can introduce businesses in their countries to suitable partners with the goal of creating jobs and increasing tax revenue.

“My wish is that the success of this project will help us establish best practices in the field of smart grids …[and] set the two countries further along the path of cooperation –starting with the green sector and eventually including all industries,” he said.

Korea is hoping that what works in Chicago can be expanded elsewhere in the United States, Canada and Europe, where the real economic opportunity lies.

“The smart grid is the new interstate highway system,” said Geoff Zeiss, director of technology for Autodesk, a $2 billion design and engineering software firm. “…The Koreans are using the Korean market as a spring board to get into much larger markets and because of the size of the U.S. market, the U.S. standards will define world standards.”


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  1. Ralphie July 21, 2010 at 8:07 a.m.

    what a poorly written article…all over the place, long-winded and just plain boring on what is a facinating subject. Ehhhh…..

  2. aaron July 21, 2010 at 8:45 a.m.

    And why are we getting products from overseas when we can build and install those same products right here in the USA ?

  3. jack (me) July 21, 2010 at 9:04 a.m.

    I was thinking like Aaron. It is sort of like HDTV. The U.S. developed digital to force out Japanese analog HDTV, and who now corners the market? Korea.

    I think I’ll go down to Super H Mart and have some laver roll with parilla to celebrate.

  4. jason July 21, 2010 at 9:14 a.m.

    and what does Korea get from this deal

  5. Jay July 21, 2010 at 10:36 a.m.

    I think it’s pretty obvious that the Korean company and their government sees a huge potential for saving energy, both in terms of environment and actual energy cost savings. The benefits to Korea, Jason, should be obvious. Jack hit on something quite disturbing that Aaron exemplifies; we (the USA) do not place a premium on building technology such as this (despite Obama’s calls for retrofitting houses and buildings with cleaner technology) and the misunderstanding of people like Aaron, “buy and build American”. The answer is that we consume, consume and consume and don’t ever look to conservation…and this is a problem on the local government level. The Chicago building code should be altered to give incentives and rewards for constructing buildings that are able to return energy to the coal fired grid and thereby reducing the dependence on coal…and using clean technology to power the buildings, wind, solar, etc.

    Anyhow, comments above, the reason the Korean’s are doing this is that they see a huge potential for profit by teaching us dumb Americans how to live a better life…myself included.

  6. Edward July 21, 2010 at 10:38 a.m.


    The company that pioneered HDTV digital signal technology was America’s Zenith, which got bought by Korea’s LG sometime in the 90’s. Just FYI.

  7. Edward July 21, 2010 at 10:45 a.m.

    The pattern amoung Koreans in these kinds of deals is to take the technology and at least do a fair amount of production in the U.S. Witness the huge Hyundai plant in Alabama or the LG Chem battery plant that’s being built in Holland, MI. All Korean cell phones sold in the U.S. has components made in their Austin, TX semiconductor plant. I imagine the Koreans wil do this for green technologies they transfer to the U.S. as well. Perhaps IL can be a beneficiary?

    Anyways, this arrangement (if it continues as I’ve explained it above) is pretty generous considering that the host country has done very little to develop the technology themselves. To be sure, developing these technologies is very difficult and capital intensive, let alone expensive.

  8. curious July 21, 2010 at 10:51 a.m.

    i wouldnt trust the koreans to touch any of our landmarks, let alone huge skyscrapers to install “anything”

  9. Jay July 21, 2010 at 10:59 a.m.

    Curious – you bring to mind one of my favorite quotes:

    “There’s only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.”

    Congratulations on being the xenophobe of the day.

  10. John July 21, 2010 at 11:01 a.m.

    Jay, your comments are spot on. curious, you are a perfect example of the type of backward thinking people that live in the USA.

  11. Kermit July 21, 2010 at 11:04 a.m.

    Like many “green” initiatives, this sounds good on paper, but how many downtown high rises will accept lowered Indoor Air Quality and space comfort (heating and cooling) just to “be green”.

    Putting the building HVAC systems on a VFD does not mean that the code ventilation minimums would be lowered. Many of the commercial systems could not be turned down all that much and still be providing ventilation rates required by Code. Fans would still have to run but only temperatures could be lowered and mostly only in cooling. Heating has a minimum 70 degree lower limit. Many of the cooling peak demand periods are at times (like in the past few weeks) when everyone’s AC is running non-stop. Are you willing to turn down or turn off your office AC at those times? Or is that when they are most needed?
    Would you turn control of these systems over to ComEd so they can tell you or your building how much power you need at certain times?

    Having “smarter” building systems is certainly a goal but to what extent? It aint easy being green…

  12. The Aragon Kid July 21, 2010 at 11:42 a.m.

    Johnson Controls, an American company headquartered right next door in Wisconsin, is doing this for the Empire State building in New York so there is indeed American technology to do this. Why isn’t the city having them do this. Sounds like someone is getting another breifcase or two of cash at city hall.

  13. Innocent_III July 21, 2010 at 11:50 a.m.

    Whatever the merits of this technology, Korea is one of the world’s most protectionist countries in the world– always ready to export, yet endless barriers to imports.

    Just something to think about, when you “Imagine what Samsung can do for you!”, or, you you’re thinking of a Hyundai or something else Korean.

    It’s easy to understand the attraction of protectionism, but, it’s harder to understand why the USA constantly finds itself in these unequal trade relationships.

  14. Jay July 21, 2010 at 11:54 a.m.

    John –

    I don’t understand, and your comment doesn’t give any support or example, of how my thinking is “backwards”. It’s hard to respond to such a statement made without any evidence. If you have a point, please make it and I will respond, that’s how civilized people interact. But a blanket “you think backwards” only demonstrates the fact the “I’m right and you’re stupid” style of arguing popular in the punditry. To quote someone you probably supported: “bring it on”…

  15. Case July 21, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    And why are we getting products from overseas when we can build and install those same products right here in the USA ?

  16. chrisb July 21, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Korea is paying for this, no one is buying korean products. They are doing it to experiment, oh rest assured anything learned will be patented and used to help Korean companies. Korea has more per capita PHDs than any country in the world, most of them educated here.

    But what people should be asking is, why aren’t american companies doing this? Where is GE in all this? Korea isn’t stealing the leadership of any technology, we are giving up the leadership. Someone has to lead. If we won’t someone else will.

  17. CS July 21, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Jay, John was referring to user curious

  18. jack (me) July 21, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Edward: I knew that, and that was entirely my point. LG isn’t making Zenith HDTVs in Melrose Park. And, to exemplify where American manufacturing is going, Zenith’s Glenview headquarters is now Aon, just a service company. Samsung is a big HDTV manufacturer, and Korean. Sharp shows that the Japanese got back a chunk of this market, even though, as I noted earlier, the idea was to supplant Japanese technology. Of course, most all of them actually manufacture in China or Mexico.

    Whether the Koreans farm out some subcomponent production to the U.S. or not, they certainly are paying U.S. universities to develop the technology for them so that they retain the profits.

  19. Edward July 21, 2010 at 12:52 pm


    There are some things that are just not efficient to make in the U.S. Hell, there are some things that are not efficient to make in Korea either. Although some components and the screens are made in Korea, most Korean HDTV manufacturing is actually done in China.

    There are opportunities to work together if we take a dispassionate and mutually benificial approach to global trade. Take Dow Kokam for example. American manufacturing and Korean technology. Dow Chemical will license and learn from Korean lithium battery technology to make batteries for hybrids. Win-win situation.

    I just don’t see a point to comment on this tread anymore. Too many xenophobic people who don’t have a good understanding of how the global economy works commenting here. It’s sad. I won’t be a part of it.

  20. Frank Bruhns July 22, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    Energy conservation starts with survey/assessments. Simply getting central control of the existings (mostly supersized) equipment (and joining the existing automated control centers) is the great beginning. The Koreans will have contracted to share in the energy cost reductions given by Edison to users who will swing loads.
    Under the current unmanaged systems, at least 30 to 40 per cent will be saved. USA firms would engineer and reinvent and overlay the systems with administration and supervisors.