Editor’s Comments: Leading by Example

July 27, 2015

Earlier this summer I attended the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) Every Building Conference and Expo, where I learned about the Zero Net Energy Center, a retrofit of a 1981 office building in San Leandro, CA, into a sustainable training center for the electrical industry. Energy conservation was at the forefront of the original concept for the multidisciplinary team involved, but they approached the “net zero question” with courage balanced by healthy skepticism. It turns out the building exceeds their modest hopes; after over 12 months in operation, it is actually net positive.

The Zero Net Energy Center is a joint project of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local Union 595, and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), Northern California Chapter. The team members who spoke seemed to have a special affection for the way this retrofit experiment allowed them to learn just how far they could go considering the original skeleton of the building, the location relative to the sun’s path, local weather patterns, local regulations, and all that their expertise could bring.

While there were constraints on the outlay of capital for the innovative designs and equipment, the fact that this would be the place for IBEW/NECA Electrical Apprenticeships proved a compelling case to reach for optimal performance. According to BOMA, the building uses 75% less energy than a typical commercial building and has exceeded California’s 2030 guidelines 17 years in advance.

Renewable systems include rooftop solar PV, some angled atop skylights, and a solar tracking canopy at the entrance, which—because it tracks the sun—performs better than the other panels, even with some energy involved in its movement. Due to proximity of the Oakland airport, the few wind turbines couldn’t be tall enough to offer much power, but they serve as training tools and icons of sustainability. There is natural daylighting with windows (in some cases, the original 1981 panes) and skylights, plus solar tubes that incorporate mirrors to direct light into interior spaces. One architect said even more of the solar tubes could have been incorporated; while they look, from below, like the light is coming from bulbs, the natural light is very effective and adds a human comfort factor.

There are also LEDs, high-efficiency fluorescent lights, and occupancy sensors. Sensors also manage the HVAC where the building balances natural ventilation, a variable refrigerant flow (VRF) system, and, in winter in one of the classrooms, thermal mass heating through a skylight that directs sunlight onto wall made of double rock panels.

A dashboard makes systems’ energy use visible. And instructors who teach the classes can override the automation, opening the operable windows when desired. In other words, the tail is not wagging the dog. The occupants are empowered in a space where human effort and state-of-the-art technology collaborate.

Like the IBEW/NECA project, Business Energy is moving with the momentum of our times toward what is possible in terms of distributed generation and energy efficiency, and there are many exciting developments. We’ve got VRF, fenestration, roofing, air curtains, turbines, microgrids, and more covered in the pages ahead. Look for the Smart Buildings supplement in our September/October issue, and get in touch if you are a manufacturer who would like to be in it.

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