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Smart Building Insights

New Paradigms in Power Distribution


It’s been a long time since Thomas Edison electrocuted an elephant at Coney Island, promoting the false notion that direct current (DC) electricity was superior (and safer) to Nikola Tesla’s alternating current (AC). As the story goes, Edison continued to grow his empire at General Electric and Tesla spent his last years in a poorhouse.

History vindicated Tesla and now most buildings use AC technologies to satisfy their energy consumption needs and DC to run signals to their IT installations. A recent breakthrough in power delivery, power over ethernet (PoE) has been sweeping the market, particularly in smart lighting, but attention ought to be paid to an even newer method: digital power. Exploring these technologies will be really helpful when planning and designing a smart building, especially when considering the returns on investment.

Old Cords, New Tricks

Deliver electric power over ethernet cables has been an idea kicked around industry for a few decades, but recent developments in standards between major manufacturers and the US Department of Energy have led to widespread adoption of the technology.

PoE offers two massive advantages over more traditional AC power delivery methods: versatility and cost-efficiency.


Ethernet cables emerged as a channel for transmitting data, commonly used in homes to connect computers to routers and in data centers to connect servers and processors. PoE enables the transmission of two kinds of electric signals: power and control.

This is especially useful for smart lighting. A single cable can be run to the fixture, providing the power necessary for illumination and relaying commands from the computer to turn on and off, to dim and brighten, to alter intensity and color, and so on.

Connecting lights directly to computers enables much greater efficiencies than wirings of old, making it much easier to deploy and manage smart lighting programs in a building. Easier modulation means less work effort and more savings.

Cost-efficiency for PoE comes from not just simpler modulation, but also in the installation and renovation processes. Running standard electrical wiring is an expensive and time-consuming process, usually requiring a licensed electrician for each and every new installment or whenever someone needs to move a fixture. It also has higher material costs, whereas ethernet cables and switches are the only variable costs involved when working with PoE.

DC Makes a Valiant Comeback

While AC eventually usurped DC as the predominant method for distributing electricity, DC is finding a new and growing niche in the world. Data centers around the world are starting to adopt DC to run electricity to their servers.

Former CEO and founder of Validus DC Systems Rudy Kraus spells out the shift back to DC: “Direct current is the native power resident in all power electronics. Every CPU, memory chip, and disk drive consume direct current power. Alternating current was chosen as a power path based on criteria set 100 years ago, 50 years before power electronics existed.”


Some of the largest tech companies are deploying a mix of AC and DC in their data centers, which helps optimize their power consumption and scalability of their operations. DC power uses less equipment, meaning less wasted space, cheaper setup and maintenance, and greater reliability. It also eliminates the need for phase load balancing, which yields consistently higher power efficiencies and even less equipment.

A hybrid approach of DC and AC presents some starkly clear benefits:

  • Smaller cooling load
  • More floor space
  • Cheaper and less frequent maintenance

As smart buildings proliferate and more data processing is needed onsite, developers and operators would be wise to look for the benefits of employing both alternating and direct current connections in their buildings.

Let’s Get Digital

A new paradigm for power is on the horizon: digital power. It has the potential to usher in a new era of electrical distribution and greatly enhance the capabilities of smart buildings.

Data and energy are packaged together into electrical packets and issued along at a vociferous pace, thousands per second. The energy flow is monitored and governed by a digital transmitter, which optimizes, even shutting off, the flow of electricity for events like short circuits, faulty wiring, or the worst case scenario of someone touching a live wire in the system.

Source: VoltServer

Source: VoltServer

This means digital power systems can carry higher voltages at greater efficiencies and use less material to operate, especially when governed by software instead of human operators. With time, artificial intelligence can guide these transmitters to make better decisions around how much electricity to send, when, and where, even the balance between energy and data in each packet.

Rhode Island-based VoltServer is pioneering this concept and worth taking a look at as digital power takes a deeper root in commercial real estate.

Digital power would fit great in smart buildings. Self-governing electrical distribution would fit well into the portfolio and all-around energy efficiencies to the building’s various systems. There’s no doubt that energy bills would go down and that maintenance costs would fall as well.

Power distribution is in for a big disruption over the next few years and smart building developers and operators should investigate how best to integrate digital power, direct current, and power over ethernet.

Jonathan Goodwin