Government buildings provide a golden opportunity for energy efficiency.
Looking for a success story that defies the recession’s stubborn refusal to recover? How about the billion-dollar boom in the building energy efficiency industry, driven largely by government buildings, be they local, state, or federal. Not surprisingly, the federal government leads the way in billions spent. Could it have something to do with the fact that it’s the largest property owner in the United States? Sure, but many local and state governments are also taking advantage of high-tech answers to saving energy, plus low-risk energy performance contracts that offer no upfront costs to retrofit buildings.
The US General Services Agency (GSA) crossed a milestone in early 2010 when it announced that its investments of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds for energy efficiency in federal buildings had surpassed $4 billion. And talk about the trickle-down effect—since 2009, more than 500 companies have contributed to new building and retrofits that achieve minimum efficiency standards for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver certification. Moreover, the projects represent an impressive variety of buildings and facilities.
The funding strategies and savings are equally impressive. For example, the Department of Energy (DOE) recently approved four projects worth a total of $52.5 million under its Energy Savings Performance Contracts (ESPC) program, targeting savings in energy and water. The projects will upgrade buildings serving the Bureau of Land Management, National Wildlife Center, and the GSA. Under the ESPC program, a contractor operates as an Energy Service Company (ESCO), supplying design, construction, and upfront financing for energy-savings. The ESCO sees its profits from payments over time as the project’s owner saves on utility bills. The contractor guarantees the energy improvements that will generate savings and cover all payments to the contractor. Once the improvements are paid off, the federal agency receives all of the long-term cost savings.
Those annual energy savings generated by the four projects are considerable—at least 86,000 million BTU, which equates to the sum of about 14,500 barrels of oil. The savings are derived from renewable energy systems, including improvements to heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems; lighting upgrades, boilers and chillers, and water and sewer systems; installation of building automation systems; and appliance energy use reduction.
The Domino Effect in Retrofits
Two of the four projects are GSA buildings, where Johnson Controls Inc., Glendale, WI, is performing as the ESCO. Johnson has earned a strong track record on building efficiency projects, and much of the success relates to the ability to offer a comprehensive approach, according to Mark Wagner, vice president, Government Relations at Johnson Controls.
“You want to look at everything in a retrofit because if you change one thing you have impact on others,” says Wagner. “If you upgrade lighting, it can change your heat load, the type of airflow you need, and the size of the chiller plant, because it all works together.”
In Johnson’s government ESCO projects, different energy conservation measures such as lighting, heating and ventilation, and building control have various rates of payback, but upgrading lighting is where the company often finds what Wagner refers to as, “the bill payer or low-hanging fruit.”
Says Wagner, “In a typical government performance contract we would be putting in lots of lights, building controls, HVAC equipment, and a boiler and chiller might be in the mix as well,” says Wagner. “Give me enough lights, and I might even be able to provide solar panels on the roof, which have a much longer payback.”
Longer paybacks haven’t discouraged the use of solar panels at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The agency has awarded about $78 million in solar photovoltaic (PV) contracts solar to date. By fall 2011, 12 solar PV systems will increase energy efficiency at hospitals, clinics, and national cemeteries in a dozen particularly sunny locations, from Florida to California. The VA’s goal is to boost renewable energy consumption to 15% of annual electricity usage by 2013. Since February 2009, the VA has spent about $1.3 billion on energy efficiency projects.
Demanding Role for Distributed Energy
Solar falls under the category of distributed energy and, according to Mike Loth, Lighting Strategy & Integration, Energy Solutions, Americas Johnson Controls Inc., onsite generation has great potential, especially if it’s combined with demand response. In July 2011, Johnson completed its acquisition of EnergyConnect, a provider of smart grid demand response services and technologies.
“We’re excited to add demand response to our offerings,” says Loth. “Now we are creating potential revenues for large users of energy to shed load voluntarily during peak hours. And there’s no noticeable impact to occupants. We can integrate an automated building management platform that could reduce lighting by 5% to 10%, or let the building’s temperature rise a couple of degrees to lower the building’s load during a peak event.”
Distributed energy from a combined heat and power (CHP) resource offers another opportunity for efficiency gains, and Wagner cites a project at The Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command, Twentynine Palms, CA, as a prime example. The project includes a 7.2-MW dual-fueled CHP unit designed to pay for itself in less than four years. Moreover, the CHP’s revenue stream provided the financing a 1.2-MW PV system, three chiller plants, and several other infrastructure improvements, plus security.
“The cogeneration runs on natural gas, but if the gas line was interrupted by something, the jet engine turbine could switch to fuel oil in a matter of second to keep providing the base with energy and security,” says Wagner. “So we pulled it all together into a huge energy-saving performance contract that improves quality of life for the troops, reduces their energy load—and with renewable energy—and provides energy security. That’s what I call the art of the possible.”
The art of the possible should see something of an expanded palette as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory completes its User Test Bed Facility (UTBF) for Low-Energy Integrated Building Systems. The new lab is comprised of a set of test beds and simulation platforms for research, development, and demonstration of low-energy building technology, control systems, and building systems integration.
The facilities are designed to address key technical challenges for low-energy buildings and support the aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency strategies established by the DOE for existing and new buildings. Researchers will be able to replace prototype building systems such as exterior building envelope, windows and shading systems, lights, heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning, energy control systems, roofs, and skylights, as well as interior components such as ceilings and raised floors.
Such efforts by the DOE and other government agencies are important to promoting building efficiency technology and services, according to Robert Wilkins, vice president Public Affairs, Danfoss, Baltimore, MD. “One of the roles of government at state, local, and federal, in particular, is to set the pace to help get technologies started and rolling,” says Wilkins, “and to get architects, engineers, and contractors stimulated to specify and choose energy-saving products.”
Danfoss specializes in the heating of buildings, refrigeration techniques, and energy consumption control in electrical engines. Wilkins notes that energy efficiency products for heating can be surprisingly simple, such as a thermostatic radiator valve to control heat and adjust for comfort in a room. “This is an excellent example of an inexpensive retrofit for buildings that still have radiators and typically gets a very quick payback. Savings vary widely depending on usage, but 20% to 30% is common.”
Another modern device is the variable frequency drive (VFD) for motors. A VFD upgrade presents a substantial opportunity for saving energy in buildings because traditional motors for fans, chiller pumps, and other systems operate inefficiently. In fact, Wilkins notes that the average motor runs at full capacity, yet it only needs 50% or 60% of its capacity, and they are actually much more efficient at slower speeds. Variable frequency drives take advantage of the efficiency by keeping the motor at the minimum speed required to operate the system it serves. Soft start capabilities provide additional benefits.
Some Chilling Facts
A soft start means less stress on a building’s electrical systems, especially in the instance of running power intensive chiller pumps, according to Douglas Bishop, vice president-sales and marketing of Danfoss Turbocor Compressors Inc. “Chillers are the second most intensive load in a building, and typically we’re talking about a minimum of a couple hundred horsepower for motors in a medium- to large-sized commercial building,” says Bishop.
Turbocor compressors are designed with magnetic bearings that replace traditional oil lubrication, so the compressor’s rotating shaft is suspended in a high precision magnetic field that eliminates the drag and friction. “In terms of energy conservation, 30% of the electricity used in a constant speed compressor can be saved,” explains Bishop. “And for onsite power generation, the soft start feature is very important when you have a power outage and suddenly you’re transferring to onsite generation. Typically, in those circumstances, the mechanical equipment that was online goes off, and the building’s operators want to restart their elevators, pumps, fans, and chillers as fast as possible.”
Photo: Encelium Technologies
Lighting control software is the next generation of energy efficiency.
Natural Gas Stabilizes a Shaky Grid
Government buildings will be looking closely at onsite generation opportunities, especially if it’s CHP, according to Tom Abele, vice president of Harshaw Trane, Lexington, KY. “Combined heat and power is becoming much more economically viable, and desirable,” says Abele. “Our infrastructure has aged and is more susceptible to natural disasters, and the threat of terrorism, and, finally, the utility companies simply no longer can afford the response infrastructure that they once had. We have had longer and more frequent outages and duration, and it’s a critical issue in healthcare, manufacturing, data center, or commercial office space. Look at the case of New York City’s recent evacuation and the damage to financial markets. This notion of having more emergency power is a true concern. So how do you do that? By combined heat and power, especially with the price of electricity rising while natural gas has stabilized, and natural gas-driven engines will give you almost 90% efficiency.”
Applying that efficiency to the problem of peak demand could resolve many of the country’s infrastructure issues, and it could save money for a Trane project at Fort Knox. In Abele’s view, the problem with the smart grid is not that we don’t have ample capacity; the problem is peak demand. “People think that focusing on consumption and efficiency will affect peak demand on a correlation basis, but that’s not true,” he explains. “Yes, improving efficiency and consumption can impact demand, but oftentimes it does not work, or it’s marginal. Here in Kentucky, as with most states, we are fast approaching—and in some cases exceeding—the point where half the utility bill comes from peak demand. And it’s a one- to 15-minute window on a monthly basis that is establishing the peak.”
Harshaw Trane is currently involved with a project at Fort Knox, KY. The fort already does peak shaving, and Abele notes that his company is looking at using combined heat and power for additional savings.
Boiler upgrades are another area with great savings potential for government buildings. According to Abele, it’s rare to see a boiler equipped with any kind of continuous metering to monitor efficiency.
“I have had the opportunity to literally test hundreds of boilers and chillers that have been in service for 10 to 20 years, and the low levels of efficiency are amazing,” he says. Of course, the lack of performance isn’t noticed until the boiler runs out of capacity. So the waste of energy might continue for many years.
“When you think about heating and cooling systems, it’s only 5% of the year that they have to operate at the specified capacity, and for the rest of the year their load is such it can run longer than it’s supposed to, but still maintain comfort in the space,” says Abele. “But, if you don’t have the right instrumentation to measure that he would have a problem, given that some of these systems are oversized in the first place, you can go its entire life cycle operating inefficiently unless somebody tests it.”
Testing, submetering, and auditing the entire energy infrastructure of a building is critical to maximizing efficiency says Abele, and it’s a view that’s common to the energy efficiency industry. Now with advances in building automation, monitoring energy efficiency could become easier. For example, Serious Energy, Sunnyvale, CA, has launched a technology partnership with the US Green Building Council’s LEED online. The product is designated as LEED Automation, and the partnership enables users to sync their data with LEED Online, to track energy efficiency and drive continuous improvement in building efficiency. Such automation comes at the right time, as the need for tracking efficiency related to LEED certification should be a growing concern for government building operators.
|Photo: Hershaw Trane
Energy use dashboard at Ft. Knox
Moving to the Gold Standard
In November 2010, the GSA upgraded its requirements to LEED Gold certification as a minimum in all new federal building construction and substantial renovation projects. The GSA’s real estate portfolio represents more than 361 million square feet of space in 9,600 federally owned and leased facilities. For projects funded prior to fiscal year 2010 that are in design stage, GSA requires that LEED Gold be incorporated into ongoing designs where possible, but be contingent upon budget and schedule constraints. For GSA’s leased properties, the requirement remains at the LEED Silver certification for new construction lease projects of 10,000 square feet or more. For leases in existing buildings, LEED for Commercial Interiors is optional, at the request of the tenant agencies. The LEED certification system considers factors such as: site sustainability, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation and design.
Each of the LEED categories represents a market within itself, and, ultimately, GSA’s move to LEED Gold certification could easily mean another multi-billion dollar boost to the entire building energy efficiency industry. Especially when state and local government buildings are taken into account. Then too, there’s the constant innovation in lighting, HVAC, and automation technology. And finally, consider the drive to integrate building systems and onsite power, to take advantage of demand response and peak shaving opportunities. Indeed, this could be that rare occasion where the market, the suppliers, and the technology, are all in perfect alignment.
Author's Bio: Writer Ed Ritchie specializes in energy, transportation, and communication technologies.