Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Department of Energy's Retrofit Ramp-Up Initiative Hits Home

There has never been a better time to make energy efficicency improvements to our communities or to add renewable energy generation technologies to our homes and businesses.

Commitment Starts at the Top

On April 21, Vice President Joe Biden announced total grants of up to $452 million dollars for the U.S. Department of Energy's Retrofit Ramp-Up initiative. Under this initiative, governments, private companies, non-profits and other groups will work together to research and implement energy efficiency improvements in entire communities.

These efforts are expected to save $100 million dollars in energy usage by businesses and homes and will create more than 30,000 jobs during the next three years in the process (Source: http://eere.energy.gov, April 21). The initiative, which is part of the $80 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars that are allocated via the DOE's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) Program, is expected to spark an additional $2.8 billion in other funding over the same three-year span. (Image Credit: http://smallbiztrends.com/)

One of the larger awards went to Boulder County, Colorado, which will receive $25 million in funding. Boulder County, in partnership with the Governor’s Energy Office, Xcel Energy City and County of Denver, Garfield County and other participants, will use the funds to connect home owners with affordable energy efficiency upgrades.

Though all of the details have not been determined, this group is considering implementation of the following:

  • creating an energy “concierge service” to distribute information to homeowners and businesses
  • providing targeted rebates
  • expanding the popular City of Boulder "Two Techs and a Truck" program to provide onsite assistance with business and residential efficiency retrofits
  • expanding the successful Boulder County ClimateSmart Loan Program, and complement these efforts with innovative financing strategies.
This federal investment in Boulder County is expected to spark $180 million in efficiency upgrades and to eliminate some 200,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (Source: www.bouldercounty.org, April 21). 

Successful Programs in Boulder -  A Unique Mix of Innovations

The ClimateSmart Loan Program "provides a voluntary mechanism for commercial and residential property owners to obtain financing for renewable energy and/or energy efficiency improvements to properties in Boulder County, including properties in all cities and towns. Each property owner who receives financing through the program will be responsible for repaying the loan via a special assessment on the improved property" (Source: www.bouldercounty.org).  The most unique part of this program is the fact that these loans are tied to the property itself, not the person taking out the loan.  This allows for features such as solar panels to be paid for over time as part of the home's purchase and promotes the idea that such features are a part of a home or land's value, regardless of who owns it.

The "Two Techs and a Truck" program involves door-to-door visits to residences in which one technician does an energy audit to suggest larger-scale energy efficiency improvements and provide the resident with resources to implement them while the other make whatever on-site improvements that are possible (installation of efficient light bulbs, weather stripping, etc.).  The program will begin in May of 2010 and is funded by a carbon tax that was approved by the Boulder City Council last fall.

In addition, the City of Boulder is the site of Xcel Energy's SmartGrid City program, which is Xcel's first full-scale roll out of a fully communicating electric grid.  For more on the SmartGrid city project, please click here.

Recharge Colorado - Connecting You with Resources
In other local developments, the State of Colorado and the Governor's Energy Office (GEO) has hit the ground running with its “Recharge Colorado” website. The state's program, which I wrote about in this March entry, includes:

This new website is a great interactive tool for anyone who’s interested in purchasing energy efficient appliances or materials and for those interested in submitting a grant proposal. For a full list of these programs, please click here.

In addition, Recharge Colorado is a great place to learn more about state programs involving renewable energy generation and research. To read more, please visit the Governor’s Energy Office’s Renewable Energy Programs page.

(Image Credit: www.thisefficienthouse.com)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The New Building in Town – Workplaces of the Future

Make way, Colorado; a ground-breaking workspace will call our state home this June.

As you may know, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is building a sustainable office space in Golden, Colorado that will support some 800 staff from both its National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the DOE’s Golden Field Office. The building, which will be located on NREL’s campus, will feature roughly 220,000 square feet of space that meets LEED Platinum certification requirements. The project, for which the Department of Energy awarded $64 million in contract funds, will be “a showcase for energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies” (Source: www.nrel.gov).  (Image Credit:  http://online.wsj.com)

A Net-Zero Footprint - Smart Spaces on a Budget

The primary goal of this office is net-zero energy use and the hope is that what they learn in the planning and building processes transfers toward the DOE’s previously stated goal of commercially viable net-zero energy buildings by 2025 (Source: www.eco-structure.com, September 19, 2009). In order to serve as a model project for the commercial construction industry, a key goal is to keep the building’s construction within reasonable cost levels – it comes out to about $280 per sq/ft unfurnished – and to widely publish the project’s results (Source: http://online.wsj.com).  (Photo Credit: www.nrel.gov)  

The building is slated to open in June of this year and is called the Research Support Facilities (RSF) center. Everything from the workspace layouts to the general structure was shaped and oriented to maximize natural light exposure.  The building itself resembles an "H" shape and is engineered so that no area inside is more than 30 feet from a window and natural light sources. High-level staff members, for example, will work in offices that have walls only six feet tall and cubicles will be in an open-air configuration with very little in the way of walls in between them. Click here to read more detail on the workspace engineering concepts included in the RSF. (Image Credit: www.nrel.gov)

Windows That Do More 

A system of smart windows plays a large role in the efficient use of the variety of lightning conditions that the building will experience, including:

  • Heat-loss control
  • Angled interior reflection to maximize interior lighting
  • Sunshades to prevent work station glare
The windows will also open to vent excess heat in the warm months at night and will use the cooler night air to naturally bring down the temperature of the building. They were built with a special self-darkening film - which could cut down on energy waste via windows by up to 40% - that responds to the outside temperature.  To find out how the windows work, please click here and select the "Raven Window" option.   (Photo Credit: www.nrel.gov)

A Different Kind of Basement

Another unique feature of the building is an innovative basement-level series of concrete walls that will either capture and slowly transmit heat - from the computer center and a transpired air collector - or capture and transmit cooler air (from nighttime collections), depending on the seasons.

Pulling the outside air through this concrete labyrinth can warm it up by 5 - 10 degrees. The key to heating the building in the winter is the transpired air collector design, which minimizes loss and allows ventilated air to be heated as it enters the building. To read more about how these transpired air collectors work, please click here.

Turning on the Lights - On-Site Renewable Generation

Desk-based lighting is automatically controlled by the building to illuminate when a certain level of darkness is reached. In addition, there’s no “set temperature” for the building – it will be allowed to fluctuate between 68 and 80 degrees before energy-powered heating or cooling sources kick in. Even the cubicles themselves were built to use less energy than the current standard of 10.8 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month (instead using 2.8), and the workstations save additional energy by using laptop computers instead of desktops (Source and Image Credit: http://online.wsj.com/).

For the inevitable amount of energy that the building will require to operate, the DOE is building a Photovoltaic system that can generate up to 1.4 megawatts of energy specifically for the RSF.  Given that Colorado has the fifth greatest solar potential in the United States, these panels should be capable of covering most of the building's leftover energy needs (Source:  www.energyboom.com, April 6). To see how the construction and architecture group got around the hurdles associated with the recycled piping, please click here

Even the Building Blocks Are Green
When the DOE and NREL originally started the planning process on the Research Support Facility, they tried to keep the footprint of the building process itself as green as possible. The building structure consists of recycled steel pipe from old natural gas lines and the building uses beetle-kill wood panels and interior throughout. For information on how the construction team worked

Final Note

Don't be fooled by all of the functional design of the RSF - efficient does not mean bare.  This building achieves all of the above and still comes complete with such luxuries as a fitness center and a library for employees (Source: 
www.nrel.gov).  To learn more about this amazing, ground-breaking building, please click here.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The ENERGY STAR® Program – A Look Behind the Label

Following a recent announcement by both the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency that an additional layer of testing will be added to the already rigorous ENERGY STAR® program, I decided to take a deeper look at what the ENERGY STAR® label really means.

The ENERGY STAR® program was introduced in 1992 by the EPA as “a voluntary labeling program designed to identify and promote energy-efficient products to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” (Source: www.energystar.gov). At the outset, the products it covered were mostly computer equipment, but the program quickly expanded to include general office equipment then grew further into residential heating and cooling systems. In 1996, the EPA added the U.S. Department of Energy as a partner of the program on certain items, which now include a wide variety of products such as doors, windows and many appliances. The DOE and EPA jointly oversee compliance with the program, including initial testing, random sample testing, aggressive follow-up on violations and more.  (Photo Credit:  www.thedigeratilife.com)   

The recently announced additional layer of testing involves 200 different models of the most commonly used appliances, including refrigerators, freezers, clothes washers, dishwashers, air conditioners, and water heaters (Source: www.energy.gov, March 19). These were chosen for additional testing because they comprise roughly 25% of the average home’s overall energy bill and tend to be popular purchases.

Other new steps introduced are more uniform testing procedures, which must now be conducted only at approved laboratories, and an ongoing verification program.   (Photo Credit:  www.sierraclubgreenhome.com)

Did you know?
  • To qualify, the type of product must contribute to significant potential nationwide energy savings (no small-market, niche products)
  • If the ENERGY STAR product is more expensive than similar items, it must demonstrate a cost savings equal to the difference in a reasonable amount of time
  • In 2009, these products combined for a savings of $17 billion on nationwide utility bills and the equivalent greenhouse gas emission reduction of removing 30 million cars from the road
There are roughly 40,000 products that carry the ENERGY STAR label and there are already rigorous standards in place to ensure that they live up to their energy savings promise.  To learn more about how products can earn this designation, please visit this ENERGY STAR page.

So, what happens if a product fails in follow-up testing or is reported to the EPA and DOE as out of compliance with the program? In these situations, the rights to the label are immediately revoked and the product is investigated by the EPA, DOE or both.  The large amount of negative attention that such an investigation can generate should encourage full with all testing and verification, but both the EPA and DOE have been aggressive about enforcing program compliance in the past.  In one example of corrective action, in 2008 LG Electronics came to an agreement with the DOE to pay back consumers for promised energy savings and provide free, in-home upgrades to improve several models of refrigerators (Source:  www.energy.gov).  (Photo Credit: www.greenzer.com)

In addition to all of these promises, many ENERGY STAR products are also eligible for tax credit.  These include:
  • Windows and doors
  • Insulation
  • Roofing material
  • Air conditioners and furnaces
  • Water heaters
  • Biomass stoves
  • Geothermal heat pumps
  • Solar panels, solar water heaters
  • Small wind energy systems
(Photo credit: blog.hgtv.com) For details about items that are tax-credit eligible and allowable credit amounts, please visit this ENERGY STAR page.  (Photo Credit: www.ge.com)

It says a great deal about the commitment of both the EPA and the DOE to the energy efficiency cause that they continue to strengthen oversight of this program. So, the next time you see an ENERGY STAR® label, you’ll know that thousands of hours of research and testing were invested to verify that every such product saves you both the energy ad money that it promises. In addition, you can be sure that each of these products remains in compliance today and that there are more energy efficient products to come. For more information about both ENERGY STAR® products and testing procedures, please visit www.energystar.gov

 A note for Colorado residents - Recharge Colorado:
The Governor’s Energy Office recently announced an energy efficiency program that will offer 75,000 rebates worth approximately $22 million as of April 19, 2010.

The rebates, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, “will offer Colorado consumers a service unprecedented in scope – providing comprehensive and localized information about rebates, financial incentives, contractors, energy conservation tips and availability of goods and services across the state.” (Source: http://rechargecolorado.com/) (Image Credit: www.lipower.org)  

ENERGY STAR® appliance rebates will account for 16,000 of the total rebates available and will be only be offered on those appliances that are ENERGY STAR® rated (not just ENERGY STAR® labeled).

The following items are eligible as of April 19, 2010:
  • Clothes washers - $75
  • Dishwashers - $50
  • Refrigerators - $100 (with proof the previous refrigerator was recycled)
  • Refrigerators -  $50 with no proof of recycling
  • Furnaces – gas condensing $500
  • Hot water heater – gas condensing/high performance $200 (minimum efficiency rating available in coming weeks)
  • Hot water heater – gas tankless $300
  • Gas boilers - $400
For more details, please click here or visit http://rechargecolorado.com/.  

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Efficiency Improvements - Smarter Windows, Skyscrapers and the New Efficiency Research Hub

Electrochromic Windows – An Efficiency Breakthrough that's now Commercially Available

Smarter windows have officially arrived.  A company called Sage Electrochromic just won a $72 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to produce its SageGlass® product. “SageGlass® allows natural light in while controlling unwanted solar heat and glare and can be used in building windows, skylights, and curtain walls,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Website (Source: www.energy.gov, March 5). (Image Credit: www.buildinggreen.com/)

The windows include several thin layers of metal oxide materials that can remain opaque or darken with the influence of a weak electrical current. This special ability allows for the windows to adjust to the amount of light and heat that’s incoming, which in turn cuts down on energy loss through the windows. The rough figure of energy waste through conventional windows is around 30% depending on the building, so the installation of these windows alone could mean significant energy cost savings. For more details about how this exciting new window technology works, please visit the Sage Electrochromic technical information page here.

A Local Non-Profit’s Success with an Iconic Building’s Retrofit

To follow-up on my article about this project when it launched in July of 2009, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s eight-month joint venture to study and recommend efficiency retrofitting for the Empire State Building in Manhattan recently came to a close The venture, a project of the Clinton Climate Institute, Johnson Controls, Jones Lang LaSalle and Colorado-based non-profit the Rocky Mountain Institute, managed to find 38% in energy efficiency savings across the building for an annual cost savings of $4.4 million (Sources:
www.esbsustainability.com/,  greensource.construction.com, March 3). 

All of the recommended measures had to meet strict cost-effectiveness standards and both the project's results and methodology are posted online at www.esbsustainability.com. Among the recommended efficiency measures were the installation of digital demand controls (9% savings), an office layout technique called “tenant daylighting” (6%), switching from constant air volume units to variable air volume ones (5%), retrofitting the building’s chiller plant (5%), window glazing (5%) and several others (Source: www.esbsustainability.com). To learn more about the project, please visit http://www.esbsustainability.com/ and take a peek at both the interactive tools section and their comprehensive reports.  (Image Credit:  www.esbsustainability.com/)

The Energy Regional Innovation Cluster – Efficiency Solutions for Every Project Scale 

Seven federal agencies recently announced that they will ban together to contribute $129.7 million over the next five years to create an energy efficiency research center aimed at solving issues that range from efficiency basics to mass implementation on a commercial scale (Source: www.energy.gov, February 12). The official Department of Energy release goes on to re-iterate that nearly 40% of the energy consumption and carbon emissions in the United States comes from buildings and that the program will also focus on job creation. This new “hub” will be a unique mixture of energy efficiency experts and will be called the Energy Regional Innovation Cluster (E-RIC). The principal goals of this lab will be to combine the efforts of the public and private sectors to tackle large- and small-scale efficiency issues to guide better solutions through to the marketplace at a faster rate. (Image Credit:  www.life.com/)

Such a lab will be a very exciting and unprecedented way to join the research strengths of both the government and the private sector and allow them to work together on problems of all scales to develop solutions that could have a huge impact on efficiency innovations over the next few years. The new lab’s location has yet to be determined, but will likely be at a university, an existing DOE laboratory, at a non-profit or within a private company. Other funding providers include the U.S. Department of Commerce (up to $5.5 million between three DOC programs) and the U.S. Small Business Administration (Source: www.energy.gov, February 12).

Friday, February 19, 2010

An Olympic Efficiency Feat

In the first such development during an Olympic Games, the energy consumption at several venues at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver is being monitored live. The monitoring services, provided by a local company named Pulse Energy, covers structures in the athlete’s villages, the snowmaking equipment, the Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Centre and other facilities (Source: EnergyEfficiencynews.com, February 18). All of the energy use figures for the participating facilities are available online at this link: http://www.venueenergytracker.com/. The Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee also implemented sweeping energy efficiency measures in these buildings that netted a reported energy savings of 66,000 kWh in just the first three days of the Games.  (Photo Credit:  http://www.venueenergytracker.com/).  

The Venue Energy Tracker website also provides details about how each venue was constructed or improved with energy efficiency in mind. It’s interesting to read about the various challenges that these large, world-class venues presented on the efficiency front and to see the creative solutions put in place to combat those challenges. The Richmond Olympic Oval, for example, features a roof made from recycled Pine beetle-kill trees and uses waste heat energy from ice-making for other purposes in the building, including hot water and heating/cooling systems (Source:  Vancouver2010.com).  To see a complete listing of sustainability initiatives tied in with the 2010 Games - everything from greener ticket practices to LEED Certified facilities - please click here to visit the Vancouver 2010 sustainability home page.  (Photo Credit:  http://www.venueenergytracker.com/)

In addition to the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee's efficiency efforts for the 2010 games, the city of London is preparing broad energy efficiency initiatives for the 2012 Games as well.  The London Olympic Organizing Committee’s goal is to reduce the carbon emissions from the Games by 50% as compared to previous Games (those that did not attempt to curb energy use or carbon emissions).  For more information on the 2012 Games and energy efficiency, please click here.  I specifically recommend reading about the Energy Centre, a sustainable energy power center that London is preparing for the 2012 Olympic Games which features a biomass boiler fueled by wood chips as one of many efforts to reduce carbon emissions (Source:  London2012.com).  (Photo Credit:  http://www.london2012.com/)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Great News - The State Energy Efficiency (SEE) Action Network

The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy recently announced the creation of the State Energy Efficiency Action Network (SEE Action Network), a body that will help states implement and oversee energy efficiency programs (Source:  Energy.gov, February 2).  This move, which provides support and expertise from the federal side of things, could not come at a better time.  State budgets are in the red nationwide, resulting in personnel and program cuts, while federal funding for energy efficiency programs is at an all-time high.  The net effect of these two factors is that many states are having a difficult time accessing, implementing, and tracking energy efficiency projects at a time when the funding is available to make significant strides in energy savings across the nation. (Photo Credit: http://www.wordpress.com/

I wrote about one example of this in my January entry, where I discussed the challenges of implementing large-scale weatherization programs in our current economic climate.  I cited some issues discovered in Illinois through a random DOE audit of these newer programs in which a contractor did some weatherization work on behalf of the state that was later deemed unsafe.   This move by the EPA and DOE ensures that all of us, homeowners, businesses, workers and manufacturers of energy efficiency materials will benefit and that those dollars will be spent wisely.  (Photo Credit: http://www.smartpower.org/)

The SEE Action Network will follow a set of guidelines set forth in the National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency, a public-private partnership that launched in 2005 to create an hard-hitting plan for energy efficiency supported by utilities, regulators, and other private businesses.  The action plan’s goal is ambitious; “to achieve all cost-effective energy efficiency by the year 2025,” but this program is now pledging to meet this goal five years sooner than originally planned (in 2020).   I am excited to see what comes of the SEE Action Network and will surely track its progress along the way. (Photo Credit:  http://www.ncsl.org/

Renewable Energy Standard Pros and Cons – Federally Mandated Utility Participation

The question of what percentage of utilities' output should come from renewable energy sources has been debated by legislators nationwide for years now.  Some 28 states have declared statewide standards on renewable energy use by utilities, such as Colorado’s mandate for utilities to draw 20% of their energy from renewables by 2020.  Right now, a Colorado House of Representatives committee is discussing a bill (House bill 1001) to raise that requirement to 30% by 2020 for both Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy (Source:  DenverPost.com, February 4).  The proposed bill, while it appears to have fairly broad support across the groups involved, is being considered in a state that’s much more conducive to renewable energy generation than say, Alabama may be.  (Photo credit: switchboard.nrdc.org)

The issue of the relative accessibility of renewable energy generation opportunities and the fact that this availability varies greatly across the nation is precisely the concern with some legislation that’s currently in front of the U.S. House of Representatives.  One bill being discussed would require utilities nationwide to derive 15% of their total energy output from renewable sources by 2021 – a number that’s already been reduced from 20% after hearing concerns from utilities on the issue (Source:  RenewableEnergyWorld.com, February 5). (Photo credit: wikimedia.org)

One possible solution to this problem is adopting a specific clause that allows for energy efficiency savings to be factored in to this mandate percentage.  If a given utility can implement an efficiency savings across its customer network of say, 8% between now and 2021, that percentage would likely count toward the overall 15% goal from renewables outlined in any legislation. 

It’s plain see that a state like Arizona may have abundant access to solar energy and Texas may have an abundance of potential wind energy, but that Mississippi may have less opportunity for either.  At the same time, if a reduction in carbon emissions is to be a priority in this country, there has to be either a market-driven or mandated incentive to push states to reach this goal.  While there may be more market-driven incentive in some states terms of the dollars to be earned by achieving these goals (and some federally-funded incentive as well in the form of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars), there are legitimate concerns that these alone are simply not powerful enough.  In addition, if there is no pressure on the states that appear to have fewer resources where renewable energy generation is concerned, these states are less likely to produce more creative solutions, such as using sawdust in place of fossil fuels in the energy generation process (as the previously cited RenewableEnergyWorld.com article mentions).  (Photo credit: scientificamerican.com)

One thing is for certain – it will be interesting to see what comes of these legislative discussions.  My hope is that ingenuity and technological advancement will help every state to reach these goals, whether they arrive at them on their own or via federal mandate.  It's also worth noting here that many utilities are working with each other to produce their own industry guidelines, which is likely to help the cause as well.  For more on utility-driven measures, read more about the National Action Plan for Energy Efficiency.