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Achieve net zero energy use in existing buildings

As a result of the programming changes it has implemented, last year McWhinney saved an estimated $143,000 in utilities at its Rangeview IV and Rangeview V commercial buildings located in Centerra in Loveland.
Bruce Gouker

Bruce Gouker
Director of operations, McWhinney

Energy-efficient building, particularly in the commercial space, is a trend that isn’t going away. According to 2018 data from the U.S. Green Building Council, new commercial construction continues to lead in green building projects, with 51 percent of global respondents planning such projects. Respondents overwhelmingly praised rating systems such as LEED as helpful with the development of high-performing buildings, not surprising given their many environmental and operational benefits. But with so much focus on new construction, it’s easy to see that a significant opportunity is being missed. What about the sustainability opportunities for those commercial buildings already in existence? What’s the best path to improved energy efficiency, and ultimately net zero energy use, for those buildings?

Achieving an ambitious goal requires setting an ambitious plan into motion. These recommendations are tailored specifically to commercial building owners and managers who want to make a serious dent in their energy use, thereby reaping the myriad benefits of energy efficiency – for their tenants, themselves and the planet.

1. Track and monitor energy use. In order to reduce energy consumption in an existing commercial building, the first action must be an evaluation of current energy usage. To finish a race, one must know the starting point. At our firm, we look at every current and future project for energy use management and optimization. Specifically, we track energy and utility electrical demand minute by minute. We use metrics like Energy Star to keep track of our energy usage over time and spot operational problems in advance. We also take the time to understand the utility rate structure so we can analyze our bills effectively. This monitoring process begins with an initial evaluation and continues in perpetuity because new questions and concerns can always arise. If we don’t know where a building’s usage stands, we don’t know how to improve it.

2. Upgrade to new technologies. Once building owners have a gauge on their day-to-day energy usage, it’s time for an audit of current technologies and systems. Are you already using variable frequency drives for supply air fans? Do you use digital or analog systems for operating your heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and natural gas systems? What software do you use to track your building’s energy and operations over time? Have you considered water-cooled air-conditioning systems? What about LED lighting with digital controls? These technologies may sound more like “nice to have” upgrades than vitally necessary investments, but studies have shown that these upgrades more than pay for themselves over time thanks to the energy and operational cost savings. In buildings we manage, these technologies are always under serious consideration, if not active implementation, simply because of the financial and sustainability benefits they offer in the long term.

3. Utilize retro-commissioning. It also may be worth exploring retro-commissioning as an option for your building. Utility companies are supporting retro-commissioning services for existing structures, as the process can create substantial savings (varying between 5% and 35%) for a relatively low cost. To get started, it’s necessary to begin a conversation with your utility provider. We recently implemented this process at 10 of our properties and subsequently predicted a future savings over 10 years of $3.6 million. In order for these programs to work best, the building in question must have a direct digital control system.

At the highest level, reduced energy consumption represents an opportunity to lessen the harmful impact we have on our natural environment while making the world a little more pleasant and secure for our communities. Beyond the environmental impact, building owners and managers specifically benefit from the increased building value, utility cost savings and the community impact recognition. Meanwhile, building tenants also benefit from the reduced costs of energy, operations and maintenance. Some companies see an added bonus in enhanced recruitment opportunities, given the fact that so many members of today’s talented workforce are actively seeking positions with environmentally conscious companies. These benefits are ripe for the plucking, yet are only available to those commercial building owners and developers who invest in smart energy practices.

For existing commercial buildings, there is a proven path to optimized energy consumption – and even net zero usage – but it requires careful evaluation, monitoring, investment and investigation.

Featured in CREJ’s July 2019 Property Management Quarterly

Edited by the Colorado Real Estate Journal staff.