Hold Off On Renewables: Start With Energy Efficiency

Before jumping into an investment in renewables, first optimize your energy systems.

By Gary Williams
From the December 2023 Issue


Why install a rooftop full of solar panels if a significant portion of the energy they generate goes to waste? While renewable energy is gaining well-deserved attention for being the cleanest and an increasingly affordable energy source, embracing renewables without first optimizing energy systems for cost savings and efficiency may moot the point and lengthen the payback period on these kind of investments.

Consider this: the average commercial and industrial facility in America wastes 30% of the energy it consumes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). There’s no cheaper source of energy than energy not used … or wasted.

Instead of jumping straight into an investment in renewable energy, think of renewables as the third level of a gradual upward journey toward reducing a building’s carbon footprint.

renewables, renewable energy
(Source: Adobe Stock / Who is Danny)

Level 1: Conservation

Start with the basics. Switch off the lights. Utilize dimmers and motion sensors. Ensure that office machines and electronics, like computers, go to sleep when not in use.

These are simple measures that may require modest investments, such as LED lighting and occupant sensors. However, the primary challenge of conservation is getting everyone on board. According to the EPA’s ENERGY STAR® program, approximately 25-30% of potential energy savings can be achieved through changes in human behavior.

One effective way to identify low-hanging fruit and build more occupant buy-in for utility optimization is by organizing an Energy Treasure Hunt. This involves assembling a group of people—not only building managers and engineers but occupants as well—to explore the building looking for opportunities to conserve energy.

Energy Treasure Hunts focus mostly on day-to-day operational activities, leveraging the expertise of local personnel who are most familiar with optimizing facility production and implementing operational changes.

While audits and assessments often have negative connotations, the idea of hunting for “treasure” puts a positive spin on the process, keeping the focus on the goal of identifying improvements that can typically be made immediately with low or no-cost solutions.

Level 2: Efficiency

Energy efficiency is considered the cheapest energy resource. While the typical return on investment (ROI) for business investments is about 10%, according to the DOE, renewable energy projects offer a 5% ROI. In contrast, the DOE estimates energy efficiency investments deliver an average ROI of 40%. In short, energy efficiency stands as the best investment.To improve energy efficiency, it’s imperative to know the areas consuming the most energy. Here are some tips to consider:

Optimize heating and cooling systems. These systems use 40-50% of a commercial building’s energy. Simple practices like sealing air leaks, replacing dirty filters, properly managing temperature set points, and calibrating Building Automation Systems (BAS) can lead to up to 30% of energy efficiency savings.

Install variable frequency drives to control power and reduce energy consumed by fans, pumps, compressors, HVAC, and cooling tower motors.

Insulate heat exchanges. The DOE estimates that 20-50% of industry energy input is lost as waste heat. Just one uninsulated steam trap radiates away hundreds of dollars per year in energy, and an average facility has 500 steam traps. A faulty trap can cost up to $1,200 per year in wasted energy.

Achieve energy efficiency through retrocommissioning (RCx). This systematic approach uses data collection, analysis, and cost-effective measures to optimize a building’s energy usage through improvements to existing mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems.

The RCx process includes four phases:

  1. Assessment – Experts collect data, evaluate the building’s systems and identify energy-saving opportunities.
  2. Analysis – Data collected is used to select cost-effective measures and track their impact on energy usage.
  3. Implementation – Recommended measures are put into action, which may include system optimization, control system upgrades or equipment replacement.
  4. Verification – the team concludes with measuring and verifying energy savings to ensure that goals are met.

Energy efficiency involves continuous monitoring and measuring of asset performance. With a solid energy efficiency foundation in place, a facility is ready to maximize investments in renewable energy.

Level 3: Introduce Renewables

There are two avenues for renewable energy implementation: installing renewable energy systems, like solar panels or wind turbines, or buying renewable energy certificates from power companies.

To start, connect with the local energy company and explore federal and state incentives.  The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIREUSA.org) is a valuable resource to learn more about opportunities available across the U.S.

Energy companies are eager to support organizations in their quest for renewable energy. They often offer credits for renewable energy source installations, as well as renewable energy certificates. For many companies, purchasing renewable energy certificates may be a more sensible investment when compared to the cost of installing and maintaining new systems.

Virtual Power Plants Vs. Utility Green Tariffs

Virtual power plants (VPP) are a network of distributed energy resources—such as solar panels, wind turbines and battery storage systems—managed through a central control system. VPPs are a technology-driven solution that optimize the delivery of renewable energy to the grid, improving the balance and efficiency of electricity supply and demand.

Several states offer utility green tariff (UGT) programs, which are independently tracked and verified programs offered by utilities allowing customers to purchase renewable energy credits or ensure a portion of their electricity is generated from clean sources. UGTs incentivize renewable energy projects, supporting the growth of the green industry.

While purchasing renewable energy certificates may be cost-effective in the near term, there are also long-term benefits to investing in renewable energy sources.

Ready To Invest?

For facility executives looking to make an investment, here are a few ideas to start:

Solar Thermal Systems: Use solar thermal systems for hot water. Electric boilers, cafeterias and restrooms all use hot water, accounting for 15-20% of a commercial building’s energy. A solar thermal system draws energy from the sun to heat water and is a good starting investment.

Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Panels: PV solar panels convert sunlight directly into energy. Pairing PV solar with a battery storage system that stores energy can reduce dependence on the electrical grid.

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Starting out, a building doesn’t need enough PV panels to power the entire facility. Look at big energy draws, such as the computer server room, and install enough to power those areas.

Solar Panel-Covered Parking Lots: Large incentives are being awarded for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, which not only charge electric vehicles but also help power a facility. Think of the parking lot as a potential solar farm.

Renewable energy is a pivotal part of the future. But getting there doesn’t have to happen in one night. Starting with small steps, such as efficiency improvements, and committing to protect our planet reduces grid strain and builds a cleaner future. 

Renewables, ESFMWilliams is the Director of Sustainability and Energy Solutions with ESFM. He brings 25 years of combined experience in engineering and engineering management. His ENERGY STAR partnership and consulting work has guided organizations from various industries in achieving substantial energy savings toward their carbon neutral and carbon net zero objectives.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or send an e-mail to the Editor at jen@groupc.com.

Check out all the facility management topics covered in Facility Executive magazine’s Services & Maintenance articles.


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