Maximize Clean Energy Progress

Increasingly, buildings are active players in the pursuit of energy efficiency goals for the organizations they serve, and beyond.

By Diane Moss
From the August 2018 Issue

clean energy

As the clean energy revolution ramps up, buildings are at the center of the action and will go from being passive energy consumers to dynamic energy savers, generators, and balancers. That was the core theme among a panel of building energy experts at the international Pathways to 100% Renewable Energy conference at UC Berkeley earlier this year.(1) Key to reaping this transition’s many potential benefits to public health, the environment, and reining in energy costs will be the ability of facility managers to adopt and maintain a rapidly evolving set of new codes and technologies, collaborate with a trained workforce, and educate occupants about how to participate in these changes successfully.

In case there are any doubts that we are in a new clean energy era, despite recent political rhetoric and policy setbacks, fossil fuel consumption in the United States last year reached its lowest point in more than 100 years, as renewable electricity use continued to climb,(2) with zero emissions vehicles and energy storage also on the rise.(3) Meanwhile, at the subnational level dozens of U.S. cities are now committed to 100% renewable energy targets; the U.S. Conference of Mayors has embraced this goal;(4) and states like California and Massachusetts are considering joining Hawaii in mandating that all electricity come from zero carbon sources by mid-century.

Buildings are star players in this phenomenon. Residential rooftop solar grew in more than half of U.S. states last year, including record increases in states outside the top 10.(5) Additionally corporations, many of which now have 100% renewable electricity targets, continued to drive growth in both rooftop installations and off-site renewable power procurement for their buildings and operations.(6)

Mass scale adoption of these technologies will further accelerate, predicts Ramamoorthy Ramesh, associate laboratory director for energy technologies at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Founding Director of the U.S. Department of Energy Sunshot Initiative, created in 2010 to deeply reduce the cost of solar power. This is because prices are coming down more quickly than anticipated and have plenty of room to drop further. Sunshot’s 5 cents per kilowatt hour target for utility scale solar, which many thought wildly ambitious in 2010, already met the program’s 2020 target three years ahead of schedule and is now expected to reach 3 cents per kilowatt hour by 2030.

What this means for facility managers is that to keep up with demand for what is already in some regions the most cost-effective energy investment, they will increasingly have to work with well-trained installers to design and implement on-site solar, along with increasingly affordable complementary technologies like storage, as well as maintain the equipment for optimum performance. To ensure money is not wasted in the pursuit of clean energy (even with dropping costs for these technologies), facility managers must first and foremost deploy efficiency and energy management technology, urges California Energy Commissioner Andrew McAllister, who leads building efficiency efforts at the California Energy Commission, which oversees creation of the most advanced energy codes in the nation. This is not just a smart move for avoiding upfront investment costs, but also for maximizing savings on utility bill.

When Mutual Housing, a non-profit affordable housing organization based in Sacramento, CA, set out to create 62 units of permanent farmworker housing at its Spring Lake Development, the second biggest concern for prospective residents, next to housing cost, was utility expenses. The company’s addressed this with high efficiency features, such as Energy Star appliances and lighting, a heat pump HVAC and hot water heater, a tight building envelope with R-21 insulation, low flow and heat sensing showerheads that prevent water waste, and Nexi energy monitors that track electricity use and can decrease energy usage by 3-5%. With those energy strategies in place, the company then installed enough solar panels to offset projected electricity demand. After three years, the effort is paying off, with a majority of residents having to pay no utility expenses or $20-30 a month.

These results would not be possible without building manager engagement. As Bryan Dove from Mutual Housing points out, builders can build the most efficient buildings, but they can’t control human behavior. Managers must field inquiries from residents and educate them, which encourages peer-to-peer information sharing, and devise ways to make technologies user-friendly, such as in the case of the Spring Lake project where power strips were mounted on walls at the door so people can easily remember to turn them off when leaving.

Clean energy building solutions also produce a healthier environment, points out Byron Benton, training director at the Zero Net Energy (ZNE) Training Center in Alameda, CA. The 1981 ZNE Training Center facility was converted to become zero net energy five years ago. “All zero net, high performance buildings use natural light,” Benton explains. “Looking outside is like taking a psychological breath of fresh air. This has been shown to increase work and academic performance.” Natural ventilation is also a component of such buildings. “Of course, there is air conditioning and heating because people need to be comfortable,” says Benton, “but when fresh air can be a part of the ventilation system, it’s a healthier building.”

The experts at Pathways to 100% Renewable Energy indicated that the learning curve for facility managers in the dawning clean energy era has no end in sight. For example, managing electric vehicle (EV) charging at facilities will require new tools and new training, and fresh skill sets will also be needed as buildings start to communicate with each other and bilaterally exchange power with the electricity grid.

If mastering this multi-tasking in such a fast-changing environment is daunting, Ramesh offers a lesson learned at Sunshot: “We must remember to have the audacity to dream about solving big, difficult challenges. The results may be as good, if not better, than our dreams.”


  3. and
  6. Ibid.

clean energyMoss is founding director of the Renewables 100 Policy Institute in Santa Monica, CA. She is an independent energy and air quality policy and business consultant.

Do you have a comment? Share your thoughts in the Comments below or send an e-mail to the Editor at