In its first ever National Building Competition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency challenged teams from across the nation to cut wasteful energy use in buildings in which they live and work. Residential and commercial buildings together consume 40 percent of U.S. energy and the Obama Administration is eager to show how that load can be reduced.
In recent remarks at Pennyslvania State University, President Barack Obama promoted a plant that could help commercial buildings achieve greater energy efficiency.
"Making our buildings more energy-efficient is one of the fastest, easiest and cheapest ways to save money, combat pollution and create jobs right here in the United States of America," he said.
Obama toured Penn State research labs where scientists are working on new technologies designed to cut energy waste in commercial buildings. Stores like the Sears department store in Glen Burnie, Maryland, which took second prize in the contest, are already using some of those technologies.
The Sears store sells everything from appliances and automotive supplies to clothes and consumer electronics. As manager, Ed Maunz walks the floors all day long, not just to check on staff, but to see how building systems are working. "The building is running 24 hours a day. And, certainly a building this size can consume a lot of energy if there are not efficiencies to keep it in check"
Maunz calculates that 80 American homes could fit comfortably inside his store. And as in any private home, lighting, heating and cooling are the big energy users. He says air conditioning is very demanding, especially during the region’s intense summer heat and humidity.
"This building has 24 rooftop units. There can be times when they are overworking, under working and certainly they can drain the energy consumption if not working properly."
15,000 light bulbs switched out
As part of the store’s bid to cut its energy use, every one of those rooftop AC units was checked and repaired. Every light bulb - all 15,000 of them - was replaced with a more efficient one. And motion sensors were installed to shut lights off in offices and storerooms when no one is around.
Maunz says even escalators were put on a schedule to save power. "We are disciplined in that we don’t need the escalator on until the customer gets here and that’s approximately five minutes before the customer gets here and we turn it off five or ten minutes after the customer leaves."
Taken together, these changes helped the Sears store reduce its building energy consumption by neary one-third and cut electric bills by $46,000. Maunz says Sears’ employees like 23-year-old electronics salesman Jonathan Boushell were essential to the success of the plan.
Boushell works among banks of plasma TV sets and video-game systems. He figures they consume more energy than any department in the store and says he had to alter some routines during the year-long contest to control energy use.
"We made sure that all the TVs would be off by a certain time. We were just mindful of that and just to all around to conserve where we could, where it helped."
What the Sears employees did can easily be replicated elsewhere, at little or no net cost, according to Jennifer Amann, the director of the Buildings Program for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.
"In the current economic climate many companies are a little reluctant to make those large capital investments. So looking at your operations and maintenance is a great opportunity for tweaking the system, maybe changing out some of the components in the system that can really lead to energy savings without a huge financial investment."
Building energy diet
Office buildings can also achieve impressive energy savings. The tenants of a 12-story complex in Arlington, Virginia, managed to cut the building’s energy consumption by 28 percent as part of the EPA competition.
They did it with more efficient office lighting, an upgrade in heating and cooling systems and on-going computerized monitoring that allows building engineer Stan Hunt to know how efficiently energy is being used. "You can monitor all of your temperatures of your areas, as well as all the mechanical systems that support the areas. If somebody calls to say they are cold or they are hot you go in and look at the unit and see that servicing that area and make adjustments if necessary."
Those measures helped shave $250,000 dollars from the building’s annual energy bills. Mike Williams, regional vice president for Glenborough, the real estate company that owns and leases the building, says updated building systems can only go so far. "The technology that we implemented was one thing, but a significant part of it was just changing the attitudes of people and how they viewed energy."
The Arlington, Virginia office tower is used by government and commercial tenants, a supermarket and three levels of underground parking. The Aluminum Association
is one of the companies leasing space in the tower.
Its president Steve Larkin says the EPA’s energy challenge mirrored the way his employees already work and use energy at the office. "That means: turning off lights. That means turning off computers when we’re finished. That means closing the blinds to keep the sun out or opening the blinds on a cold day when we need the sun in."Low-cost solutions
Whether it’s an office building or a department store, a school or church, the EPA energy challenge showed that there’s always room for improvement, says Jennifer Amann with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. "It really shows that there are always opportunities, lots of un-mined potential in our buildings. It’s not a project that you do once and you forget about. It is something that you do over time and you maintain it as part of your strategy."
A building strategy, Amann adds, that makes sense both for the pocket book and the planet.