Moving Buildings Toward Clean Energy

Moving Buildings Toward Clean Energy
March 5, 2019
Posted by:
Jessica Crawford

By Stephen P. Ashkin, Facility ExecutiveIt’s official. Starting in 2020, all new homes built in California will be required to have solar panels installed. While there are some exceptions—for instance, homes built in shaded areas, this is the first housing rule of its kind in the country. Because California is still known as a “frontrunner” in many parts of the United States, leading the way in new trends and standards, this ruling is expected to be replicated in other states as well.

This is all part of an ambitious goal California has crafted in the past few years. That goal is for the entire state to be powered by zero-emission energy sources by 2045. (Hawaii has a similar goal of being 100% powered by zero-emission energy sources by 2045.) The ultimate goal, of course, is to combat climate change. Because California is now the fifth largest economy in the world, the directions it takes are still likely to influence not only other states in the country but other countries around the world as well.

To create context: whenever we hear the words “zero-emission” energy sources, we know it is invariably referring to renewable energy, which we can very simply define as energy that comes from a source that is not depleted with use. This includes many of the alternative power sources most of us are aware of, such as:

  • wind energy;
  • solar power;
  • hydropower, from waterways and dams;
  • ocean thermal, which uses both colder and warmer water to power generators; and
  • biofuels, derived from agriculture waste as well as plants such as corn and sugar cane.

However, there are other renewable energy sources and new energy related technologies already in use or on the horizon that can help building owners and facility managers specifically reduce their facility’s environmental impacts. These types of systems are focused on helping facilities to use less (or no) traditional energy sources. And, because these energy reducing technologies typically go hand-in-hand with sustainability, employing these also helps facilities operate more sustainably. Among these are the following developments:

Microgrids. Think of microgrids as mini power plants, utilizing natural gas, cogeneration, renewables, and other energy sources to power facilities. The military has been using these for several years to power locations in remote areas of the world where there often are no power grids to connect to. For facilities, microgrids are commonly used to help building owners and facility managers mitigate costly energy demand charges; protect against volatility in the energy market; and help facilities achieve net-zero energy status, producing as much energy as it consumes throughout the year.

Sensor Suitcase. These systems are designed to gather information about how a facility uses energy by placing sensors in various locations around the building. Data is collected and analyzed by computer software, which then makes recommendations for ways to improve energy efficiency in the facility that not only can reduce energy needs but can reduce building operating costs. These systems are relatively inexpensive and are designed to be user-friendly.

Sustainability Dashboards. Also very cost-effective, the goal of many sustainability dashboard systems is the same: to help building owners and facility managers know such things as how much energy, water, and fuel is being consumed in the building as well as the amount of waste generated. By measuring and monitoring such consumption, these help in setting goals to help reduce consumption, waste, and other key performance indicators (KPIs).

At least one of these systems takes this technology a step further. Referred to as an “engagement display,” these systems allow building users to see, using a variety of images, the steps a facility is taking to reduce its environmental impacts, promote sustainability, and lower operating costs. They are referred to as engagement displays because they help educate building users (especially employees) about the steps their employers are taking to reduce energy, water, and fuel consumption, and their efforts to protect the environment.

Internet of Things (IoT). Some observers say that IoT was created for the commercial real estate industry. Using IoT building management systems has proven to improve building performance by helping facilities become more energy efficient and to use natural resources more responsibly. Essentially, IoT refers to a variety of technologies and applications that use sensors to connect devices with locations to generate data. In commercial facilities, this data can be used to help track such things as lighting use and energy consumption, temperatures, and building use. It even provides predictive insights. For instance, owners/manager know more precisely when, for instance, HVAC systems need to be turned on to accommodate building users and the appropriate time to turn these systems off, to help reduce energy needs.

Energy optimization systems. Stanford University has been experimenting with these systems with considerable success. A very simplified example of how these systems work is that they can take the heat generated from building cooling systems and use it for hot water. This reduces costs significantly along with reducing the need for gas-fired burners to heat the water, which emits greenhouse gasses and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

Some of the technologies discussed here are very inexpensive while others can be quite costly. Realizing that some may be costly, many owners/managers first question if investing in these technologies will pay off, and also how these will affect building users.

As to the first concern, we must realize that just taking incremental steps to reduce energy consumption and transfer to alternative energy sources can pay dividends. For instance, the steps mentioned earlier to measure and monitor KPIs can be a significant first step.

As to the building occupants, comfort does not need to be sacrificed by incorporating these technologies or switching to alternative energy sources. For example, when the University of Louisiana builds a new campus building, the state will not increase the school’s operating budget to cover the heating and air conditioning costs of the new facility. The school has to find ways to cover these costs. To do so, they find alternative ways to cool and heat these locations, often turning to alternative energy sources to power the buildings as well as making these facilities more energy efficient. The result has proven very useful. The campus now has 11 new LEED-certified buildings, and according to Harlan Sans, the school’s chief financial officer, “sustainable buildings often don’t just look better [than traditional buildings], but are more comfortable to work and study in as well.”

Ashkin is President of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in green cleaning and sustainability, and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools LLC, for measuring and monitoring sustainability with the goal of protecting natural resources and reducing facility operating costs. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning,” is on the Board of the Green Sports Alliance, and has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF).

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