These in-their-own-words pieces are told to Patricia Lane and co-edited with input from the interviewee for the purpose of brevity.
Ysael Desage teaches buildings to be team players in energy saving.
This 26-year-old Montreal-based PhD student at McGill University works at BrainBox AI, which uses artificial intelligence to help buildings use energy efficiently. Desage’s research allows groups of buildings to flatten collective peak demand, optimize the use of renewables and reduce overall demand — scaling up the possibilities for cost savings and reduced fossil fuel use.
Tell us about your project.
Buildings account for 30 per cent of the world’s fossil fuel use. BrainBox AI installs a box about the size of a shoebox in each building to analyze when cooling, heating, ventilation, gas and electricity are used and how the building itself responds to changes in temperature, precipitation and wind. Cloud-based artificial intelligence then draws from external data sources, such as weather predictions and utility costs, and “teaches” the building’s energy management systems how to maintain or improve human comfort while optimizing energy use. This means each building draws less from the grid during times of peak demand, which often reduces fossil fuel consumption. The technology also increases the proportional use of renewables and cuts costs by reducing overall demand.
Since our launch in 2019, we have applied our technology to more than 100 million square feet of commercial building space in 70 cities worldwide, often with multiple sites. For example, Sleep Country Canada has our “brain boxes” in all 214 of its stores. A California-based pharmaceutical company is working with us to reduce its carbon footprint and achieve other sustainability objectives at its Los Angeles campus. While each building is different, we are often able to facilitate cost savings of 25 per cent and a reduction of carbon emissions up to 40 per cent.
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My work takes this to the next level by linking the artificial intelligence agents in each individual building and connecting them together so that multiple buildings can co-operate. For example, if one building is in a shadow while another is in the sun, linking their energy systems can reduce demand for both buildings. If the users in one building stop work 10 minutes earlier than in another, the differences in their resulting energy demands can benefit both. I am also working on allowing the grid to benefit from aggregated unused battery capacity in electric vehicles and other sites.
How did you get into this work?
I studied physics as an undergraduate and computer science seemed a natural fit for my abilities. I am actively involved with the Canadian Coast Guard and get great satisfaction knowing that I am helping people. When a professor in my master’s program told me about BrainBox AI, it seemed like a great way to support people through the energy transition while using my skills and providing me with research opportunities.
Tell us about your background.
I was raised by my grandparents who took me with them as they provided humanitarian relief in places like Rwanda, Mali, Mexico and Madagascar. One of my early memories is being upset realizing that the only sources of water for many impoverished people are contaminated and muddy. I came home to Quebec for my final year of high school. As a child, I learned to cope well with being out of my comfort zone and to adapt. I was also taught to see the changes in the environment around us caused by climate change and to respect the more than human world. There was never any doubt that I would make my living trying to make the world a better place.
What makes your work hard?
It has never been done before.
What worries you?
The world has gone through energy transitions before, but never with the clock ticking against it like now. We have to scale up, go faster and we must also get it right. The responsibility can feel overwhelming.
What gives you hope?
Private and public investors and governments seem keen and ready to support the transition. Investors are often risk-averse, but in my work, while we are innovating, we are building on proven technology.
What do you see if we get this right?
We will meet our commitment to get to net-zero by 2050.
What advice would you give other young people?
Be bold. Your dreams can become a reality faster than you think, but that won’t happen unless you dare to tell others about them.
What would you like to say to older readers?
Trust the young people around you to teach you about technology. We cannot get to net-zero by 2050 without it.