Commercial buildings could be the next frontier in energy savings

Commercial buildings present a relatively untapped frontier when it comes to energy savings and greenhouse gas reduction potential.

Corporations like Walmart, which last month rolled out its solar initiative to add solar generating systems to another 20 to 30 sites in California and Arizona and has as its goal sustainability, remain a minority. Many buildings remain unchanged, sucking up just as much or more energy -- and costing more because of steady utility rate increases -- as they did when they were built.

Commercial building space in the United States covers a total of 79 billion square feet, and buildings, 80 percent of which are more than a decade old, are one of the leading sources of energy consumption and carbon emissions, said a recent report on commercial building energy efficiency by Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research.

The report, "Energy Efficiency Retrofits for Commercial and Public Buildings," estimates potential annual energy savings of more than $41.1 billion if all commercial space built as of 2010 were included in a 10-year retrofit program.

Reduced energy consumption isn't the only benefit.

"Commercial buildings use almost 20 percent of all energy in the United States and are a significant contributor to GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. From a policy perspective, energy efficiency in buildings is the most lucrative potential source of GHG reductions," wrote analyst Levin Nock and Clint Wheelock, Pike Research managing director.

It's not cheap. Pike Research estimates that such retrofit programs would cost $22.5 billion annually over the 10-year period.

Often, however, the return on investment is near immediate. And resources are availble.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy and its Pacific Northwest National Laboratory today released a report explaining how to achieve up to 50 percent energy savings in quick-service restaurants. PNNL, in Richland, Wash., my old stomping grounds, said the report is expected to provide the basis for a series of how-to guides "that show architects, engineers and building designers how to achieve above-code exemplary energy performance for buildings."

The fixes recommended for fast food restaurants were:
  • Ultra-efficient cooking appliances that reduce kitchen exhaust air flow.
  • An optimized HVAC system configuration.
  • Efficient exterior and interior lighting with dimming controls in the dining room.
  • Enhanced insulation, cool roofs and high-performance window glazing.

DOE is working with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, the American Institute of Architects, the Illuminating Engineering Society and the U.S. Green Building Council to develop and publish the reports.

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money also is finally flowing into California and other states across the nation for energy efficiency retrofits to municipal buildings. My outfit, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, is working with 39 cities and counties to administer Energy Effciency and Conservation Block Grant allocations to improve lighting, air conditioning, pumps and other building components.

We're about to unleash crews to make about $4 million worth of changes. The difference will be immediate for small cities, in some cases saving jobs. The San Joaquin Valley, like many regions in the counrty, was hard hit by the recession and property tax declines emptied municipal coffers, forcing jurisdictions to cut staffing to the bone.

That economy certainly isn't helping the private sector. About the last thing anybody wants to do is put money into new lights or HVAC systems, much less window glazing or added insulation.

“The current financial crisis has had a significant dampening effect on property owners’ investments in their properties," said Pike Research's Wheelock. "Financing for such projects is scarce, and the limited investment in building efficiency is not keeping pace with the growing national demand for energy.”

Photo: San Francisco Union Square.