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Piecing Together the Energy-Efficient Building Puzzle
11.07.12
 
Paul Torcellini looks at energy consumption as a puzzle — a puzzle with three big pieces.

Buildings, which use a lot of energy, make up more than a third of that puzzle. Getting people and stuff to and from those buildings burns up energy, too. So does making stuff for those buildings.

Torcellini, group manager for commercial buildings research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., focused on that first big piece of the puzzle Oct. 26 in a lecture at NASA's Langley Research Center.

Paul Torcellini.

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Paul Torcellini, group manager for commercial buildings research at the National Renewable Energy Lab, talked about sustainable, energy-efficient buildings Oct. 26 at the Pearl Young Theater. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

At NREL, Torcellini and his staff help big businesses like Wal-Mart and Whole Foods figure out their market barriers toward becoming more energy efficient.

They also work on definitions. For instance, what is a zero-energy building? The answer to that question may seem self-evident. But Torcellini has worked with people who don't quite seem to get it.

"I hear people say things like, 'Oh, we've just built a near zero-energy building," he said. "That's kind of like, y'know, 'We just had a spacecraft that almost got to the moon.' "

One of the obstacles Torcellini faces in his quest to reduce energy consumption in commercial buildings is the fact that a lot of people still don't think of buildings as significant polluters.

"Most people associate cars with pollution and air pollution because they see stuff coming out of the tailpipe," he said. "But buildings, y'know, the pollution is being caused someplace else in most cases — at the power plant."

That's not to say buildings haven't become more energy efficient. They have, especially with advances like improved insulation, better light fixtures and daylight harvesting — but we're still using more energy than ever before. According to Torcellini, that's because the energy efficiency isn't keeping up with the growth rate.

So for him, the question is: how are we going to start thinking about this?

Because buildings are relatively permanent, Torcellini believes it's important to consider their long-term impact.

"Those decisions we make today, we're going to be living with 40, 50, 60 years down the road," he said.

A critical problem we face, he says, is that buildings aren't engineered with respect to how they're going to perform energy-wise.

"People put them up, they plug them in, and whatever you get is whatever you get," he said.

A couple of decades ago, that was even true at the NREL campus in Colorado. According to Torcellini, the buildings there were consuming just as much energy as buildings anywhere else.

"We said, you know, we can do better than that," he said. "Let's walk the talk on what we're doing. I mean, it is our mission to be energy efficient and have renewable energy."

It took a lot of work, but the NREL campus eventually became home to a building that generates as much energy as it consumes. In addition to that, they're recycling 70 percent of their onsite trash. Campus-wide, they've had a 35 percent reduction in the amount of energy they're using per square foot. Twenty percent of their power is generated onsite. Their IT department upgraded their data center and switched people to laptops, which led to a 50 percent reduction on their IT loads. They also have a walkable campus, onsite food service, and no incandescent lights.

But a nationwide rollout of energy-efficient buildings and campuses isn't as easy as just wishing it to be true. Or, as Torcellini puts it: "Sometimes the dreams get ahead of the dollars and what is achievable."

Still, relatively small changes can lead to big energy savings. Better lighting fixtures, improved HVAC and energy-efficient insulation are a good start.

Torcellini also points out that office buildings are empty 70 percent of the time — primarily nights, weekends and holidays. During that time, electrical equipment often stays on. One way to conserve lots of energy is to turn off that equipment and unplug some of it. It's a simple solution, which is something Torcellini really likes.

"If you want energy efficiency to work," he said, "keep it simple."

Ultimately, Torcellini encourages everyone to think of themselves as being part of the solution to the energy efficiency puzzle. In the same way you might want to look at strategies for being more budget conscious and green at home, he says, you can look for ways to help out at work — even if it's something as simple as turning off the light if you're the last one out of the office.

"No matter where you are in the organization," he said, "you can have an impact."

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman