If homes and commercial buildings greened up, electric savings would be huge

Greened-up buildings offer huge electric savings

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco-Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

Cryptic. That’s the only way to describe the phone calls I kept receiving at work.

People used these obscure terms like “optimizing a building’s performance” through “integrated energy audits” and “retro-commissioning,” and it got the curiosity wheels turning. What could these code words possibly mean? I had to know. Immediately, I dug deep into my brain for stored-up knowledge and wisdom.

But nothing was there. I needed a different approach.

First, here’s the back story: On a recent afternoon, the loud ring of a telephone jolted me from my daydreams. A man on the other end of the line identified himself as Dave Clark. He spoke in a rushed manner with an eager voice, words spilling out of him without pause. I didn’t have time for this distraction and for a moment was tempted to say, “Your call is very important to us, please stay on the line,” and promptly hang up.

But Clark kept talking and I struggled to keep up. He told me about the importance of improving a building’s energy efficiency by adding insulation, sealing air leaks and repairing leaking ductwork. Keep the building’s shell in working order, he said, because 80 percent of energy waste goes through the shell.

“Doesn’t matter if you have super-efficient windows if they’re inside a room with inefficient walls, ceiling and floor,” he explained. “Window replacements are not the way to go.”

He knows. He’s been “doing this stuff” since 1979—meaning he’s spent nearly 30 years focused on making buildings energy-efficient—and will call people out on a “bunch of crock” if they say otherwise. Listening to Clark made me realize just how critical it is to improve buildings, given that homes and commercial buildings consume 66 percent of California’s electricity. More than 13 million buildings exist in California and more than 50 percent went up before the first energy-efficiency standards were established in 1978. Our state’s existing building stock presents huge potential for energy savings.

But as I hung up the phone, I wondered: How does a homeowner or commercial-property owner systematically improve an existing building’s energy efficiency, comfort and durability and achieve the most meaningful reduction in the structure’s carbon footprint? Most importantly, who’ll help them?

Instead of my usual sit-around-and-wait-for-sources-to-come-to-me approach, I changed things up and headed to Tower Cafe to meet with Charles Madison, a senior project manager in energy efficiency at PG&E in San Francisco. Madison wore snakeskin boots and smiled an awful lot. He told me about his 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter who crushes aluminum cans and recycles them. Someday, he hopes to start a nonprofit solar program in Africa. I knew I could trust him.

I jotted down his advice for two programs used to enhance a building’s efficiency: Integrated energy audits and retro-commissioning. Under these utility-sponsored programs, an engineer or energy specialist investigates the design intent of a building and its energy consumption to diagnose faults—apparently, systems don’t always operate as originally intended—and make recommendations on energy-saving opportunities.

An audit first builds on energy-efficiency opportunities and time-of-use management, then looks for ways to offset high-demand usage and finally, suggests renewable-energy methods. Recommendations tend to be no cost (such as turning down the thermostat or reprogramming building control systems to turn off HVAC units or fans during off hours), low cost (vending-machine controllers that turn down the compressors on machines when no one’s around) and capital cost measures.

“We found the first-tier people who are clamoring for it,” Madison said, because these ratepayers recognize the cost savings involved. There are some people, however, that utilities will never reach, he acknowledged.

Retro-commissioning incentives are available for commercial properties. These programs are administered by individual utility providers under the auspices of the California Public Utilities Commission. Improvements made through retro-commissioning can save commercial customers 5 to 20 percent on their energy bills, and paybacks average less than two years. A typical project takes between nine to 12 months, depending on scope and complexity. The great news is that this service is available at no cost to the building owner, and at the end of the project, the owner will receive an incentive check to complete improvement recommendations.

Madison and I shook hands and parted ways, and upon returning to the office, I filed away the notes of my highly complicated investigation. The initial steps property owners need to take to “optimize a building’s performance” were no longer a mystery. I had cracked the case and my work here was done. The rest is up to you.