The 124 million residential, business, and government buildings in the United States consume 40% of all the energy used in America and 75% of all electricity generated every year, according to a study published in Science Daily. Efforts are underway in both Chattanooga and Roanoke to reduce the energy needs of those building by up to 30% by 2030. The baseline year for the analysis is 2010.
Focus On Chattanooga
Two components of the research are the Building Technologies Office and Office of Electricity, both of which are components of the US Department of Energy. They are focusing on Chattanooga, Tennessee to develop strategies and technologies that will lower the amount of energy consumed by the buildings in that city with the expectation that their findings could later be applied to all parts of America.
The amount of money that could be saved annually via such energy efficiencies is staggering — up to $35 million a year for the 178,368 buildings served by the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga simply by using load shifting strategies during times of peak electricity demand. Extrapolate that to the entire country and the totals are truly astonishing. (The reduction in demand for fossil fuels is an ancillary but significant concomitant of those reductions in energy usage.)
A team led by research and development senior staff member Joshua New at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is dedicated to building a cost effective energy usage model for every building in America. Using the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility’s Cray XK7 Titan supercomputer, the team completed more than 2 million simulations to model every building serviced by the Electric Power Board.
The computer modeling begins with a description of each building, its systems, use patterns, and prevailing weather conditions. It also uses automated tools to determine the square footage of each building and its physical orientation from publicly available data sources like satellite images and automated calibration.
“EPB has 178,368 buildings, and each building model requires around 3,000 inputs,” New says. “If we wanted to include a 15-minute lighting schedule, we would have 35,040 numbers just to tell us if the lights are on or off — and that’s only one input. This kind of modeling is really the next level of intelligence in energy saving policies and technologies.”
The resulting models can be used to suggest retrofits or other solutions to save energy and lower electricity demand during peak hours while balancing power grid operations. The simulations can also indicate where EPB could add distributed energy resources — otherwise known as microgrids — to further improve grid resilience.
The Electric Power Board has a 9,000-mile-long fiber optic network that is one of the best Smart Grid tools in the nation. That network allows it to determine the energy usage of each building it services every 15 minutes. Part of the reason for the Oak Ridge study was the Board’s desire to have a better understanding energy usage and demand for each building it services.
Data from EPB enables the Oak Ridge researchers to accurately compare and validate building models with real world data. “EPB wanted to see how much money they could save their customers by taking steps to lower energy demand during peak critical hours,” New says. The team wanted to know what would happen if air infiltration and lighting were reduced or insulation was upgraded to meet current building codes in each building.
Next year, the EPB plans to install 200 smart thermostats to preheat or pre-cool buildings, a process that uses buildings as thermal batteries. “When you pump energy into a building, you can coast through the critical hour rather than turning on your air conditioning during the peak critical times,” New says. “That lowers the demand significantly and could keep a utility company from having to build a new multimillion-dollar substation. At the end of the day, utilities want energy to be an economic productivity factor. Our models are helping them achieve that goal.”
Roanoke Experiment Lowers Municipal Utility Bills
Beginning in 2012, the city of Roanoke, Virginia began a campaign to improve the energy efficiency of its municipal buildings, targeting fire stations, libraries, recreation centers, the courthouse and jail, the public works service center, the police station, the police academy, and the biggest building of all, the city’s civic center.
Today Roanoke has reduced its energy footprint by 23%. As a result it now spends $400,000 a year less on its utility bills than it did in 2012, an accomplishment that has earned it recognition as a 2019 Better Buildings Challenge Goal Achiever from the US Department of Energy, according to a report in Energy News Network.
Nationwide, more than 360 cities, states, businesses, manufacturers, universities, schools, data centers and others have partnered with the US Department of Energy on its Better Buildings Challenge, in which each entity commits to reaching 20% energy savings in 10 years. Roanoke is unique in that it exceeded the 20% goal by the end of 2018, four years ahead of schedule.
Only 6 other cities have matched Roanoke’s performance. “It’s a pretty elite group we’re in,” says Nell Boyle, Roanoke’s sustainability and outreach coordinator. “And it’s a big deal when the Department of Energy tells you you’re doing a good job. We’ve made a commitment to having our own internal energy team. It’s a big win having a team of people who really get to know the buildings who have a sense of ownership and pride.”
The upgrades included installing LED lighting, retrofitting HVAC systems, and installing plate exchangers that allow cooling without the traditional electric powered mechanical chillers. But the biggest challenge was the Berglund Civic Center, a concrete behemoth built in 1971, long before energy efficiency was a thing.
Part of the Better Buildings Challenge includes selecting one building to act as the centerpiece of the energy improvement plan, and for Roanoke, the Berglund Center was it. “It was our big energy consumer,” Boyle said about the concrete monstrosity that is home to a coliseum, a performing arts center, a special events center, and municipal offices. “It had never been touched.”
First came a comprehensive assessment of what efficiency improvements were needed, then the work began, starting with replacing all interior and exterior lights with LEDs. Next all the exterior doors were replaced, the HVAC system was repaired, and a high efficiency chiller and a state of the art ice rink refrigeration system were installed.
Maria Vargas is the director of the Better Buildings Initiative, which she helped to launch after two decades with the Energy Star program at the Environmental Protection Agency. Her mission is inspired by the knowledge that up to 30% of the $400 billion spent in the US each year to heat and cool commercial and industrial buildings goes to waste.
“Often, the energy bill is just something we pay and don’t think about,” Vargas says. “The Better Buildings Initiative was a way to elevate energy efficiency to the senior level across an entire organization’s portfolio.” Collectively, the 360 organizations who have participated in the Initiative control 4,4 billion square feet of floor space and have saved $3.8 billion worth of energy.
The federal Better Buildings Challenge is intentionally voluntary, Vargas says, because “paying people sets up the wrong path forward. You don’t have to pay people for something that’s in their self-interest. Saving energy is low risk, cost-effective, and pays for itself.”
That attitude should be fully in line with the conservative “free market” mantra so prevalent across America today. The Better Buildings Initiative is not a freebie or a handout. It is using the resources government can bring to bear on a problem and putting them to work for the people. There is no need for officials at the local level to invent their own energy saving strategies when the federal government has decades of expertise available to any public or private entity that asks for it.
The wonder is not that 360 groups have chosen to avail themselves of that knowledge base so far. The wonder is that thousands upon thousands of others have chosen not to. Ignorance is a condition that can be cured through the application of relevant information. There is no cure for stupidity.