After the Malden Mills textile factory, based in Malden Mills, Massachusetts, burned down in 1995, CEO Aaron Feuerstein chose to construct a new, environmentally friendly building on the same site. An efficient natural gas turbine now provides electricity and steam at very low cost. Improved lighting systems cut previous illumination expenses by 96%. Carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 30,000 tons. And over the next five years, annual energy bills fell from $350,000 to $35,000.
This is only one example of the benefits of energy efficiency. With large amounts of energy lost at nearly every work-related task, even a modest reduction at any step brings a huge decrease in total use and can significantly lower energy costs. For employers looking to follow the Malden Mills example, a diverse spectrum of cost-effective modifications are available.
Beginning With Basics
Sam Shelton directs the Industrial Assistance Center (IAC) at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which advises manufacturing firms with annual revenues below $100 million. “Most businesses aren’t interested in energy conservation to be green,” he says. Generally, the motivation is financial.
IAC teams always ask about payback criteria for lowering energy costs. For most plants, it is about two years. “Companies that contact IAC for an assessment are already thinking of doing something, but their focus is on maintenance, keeping the plant running and meeting production schedules,” says Shelton. “They don’t have time to calculate costs of energy conservation, implementation or long-term savings.”
Those factors are worth considering. “Your biggest risk is the rising cost of energy,” says Randy Croxton, of Croxton Collaborative Architects in New York. “The most common misperception about increasing energy efficiency is having to wait years to recoup the necessary investment.” But recommendations from Shelton’s IAC teams typically bring a $200,000 reduction in the first year.
Some low- or even no-cost steps yield prompt, significant rewards. Ashok Gupta, senior energy economist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, advocates regular annual maintenance, requiring no capital investment. “Make sure all your equipment, such as the HVAC system, is clean and works correctly,” he says. “In a big building, this can save you 10% to 20%. It’s like tuning your car to keep it working at its best. Not everything works the way it’s supposed to, which can be very wasteful of energy. It’s much more efficient to watch carefully.”
For manufacturers, Shelton suggests simple improvements. For example, tuning a boiler, adjusting air/fuel ratios and changing a natural gas setting could potentially save $10,000. Most motors do not need to run at maximum capacity all the time, so installing an electronic device allowing varying speed will save electricity. Air compressors are often set too high; inexpensive corrections can save large sums over time. Many companies have oversized compressors when a smaller one would suffice.
In lighting, minor changes can mean ample savings. Any area not always occupied, such as a warehouse or conference room, can have a motion detector that turns on lights only when needed. Switching to high-efficiency bulbs, even if a new fixture is required, will bring quick cost reductions. Daylight sensors will lower lights, depending on available sunshine.
Choose the most efficient computers, servers and printers possible. At a minimum, look for the Energy Star designation, says Gupta. Include energy efficiency requirements in purchasing specifications, especially as costs keep rising.
When is larger-scale energy upgrading easiest? A move within the organization, such as relocating a department, is a good time to minimize disruptions of green improvements, like re-glazing windows. Another natural opportunity is at replacement time for any major component, including HVAC.
“Buy the most efficient mechanical system,” says Gupta. “There’s an up-front cost, but payback, in about three years is a pretty good ROI.” Plan ahead, he adds. “Why wait for your equipment to break down? If your cooling system is costing a lot for energy, it may make sense to replace it a year or two in advance. Make that capital investment to start saving sooner.”
Managers often think their buildings are too obsolete for meaningful improvements. “In fact, you can upgrade any sound structure to high efficiency,” Croxton says. On a former Woolworth’s building in Willingboro, New Jersey, his firm stripped and rebuilt the exterior wall, retained structural steel and foundations, introduced natural daylight into the space “and created an ultra-renovated building with a different function.” (It is now a library.)
“Gut renovation,” the most complete overhaul of an existing structure, involves removing everything inside to work within a building’s walls. In 1997, Herman Miller, Inc. renovated a 25-year-old, two-story building on its Zeeland, Michigan campus.
Reusing the entire external shell, architects utilized extensive re-glazing, windows that open and close, higher-efficiency mechanical equipment and maximum daylight penetration. Now generating nearly 70% of its total energy on-site, the building has reduced its water use by 31% and energy consumption by 29%.
For new construction, energy-efficient opportunities abound. Make sure planning is integrated, looking at all systems simultaneously. “The smarter you are about integration, the less you’ll have to pay for incidental costs later on,” says Gupta. “By installing better windows, you can have a smaller, more efficient air conditioning system. By allowing more daylight, you’ll spend less on lighting technology. These steps can save 20% to 30% on energy costs.”
Built in 2004, the M.E. Rinker School of Building Construction at the University of Florida (UF) has high-performance construction materials, state-of-the-art HVAC systems and energy-saving light fixtures. Croxton’s firm designed it as a 100% day-lit learning environment. Adjustable perimeter lighting and sloped acoustic ceilings allow natural illumination for classrooms. A three-story atrium with skylights defines air circulation.
Despite being flooded with daylight, Rinker’s high-performing glazing eliminates the effects of the Florida heat. “We cut energy use by 60% in Rinker Hall,” says Charles Kibert, a professor at Rinker. “We now use just over one-third the energy of a traditional building at UF.”
At Chattanooga Development Resource Center, a three-story government building, a gas absorption heater/chiller mechanical system reduced annual energy use by about 80% (compared to similar-size buildings constructed around 1998). Maximum use of daylight was Croxton’s major strategy for both energy conservation and giving employees a visual connection to the outdoors. Chattanooga’s new mayor soon realized that, thanks to this municipal building’s lower energy costs, he could tout reducing government expenditures and raising efficiency.
Extensive use of glass creates great transparency, linking the public to their local municipal offices. Natural landscaping features indigenous plants. “We have less need for watering, so maintenance costs have definitely gone down,” says Bettye Jo Wells, interim facilities and telecommunications manager.
The alternative energy menu keeps growing. Two renewable resources, sun and wind, are becoming viable power sources. For a new building for Save The Bay Foundation in Providence, Rhode Island, Croxton Collaborative Architects included a cost-effective array of solar panels to meet 50% of anticipated energy use. Since 2003, the 600 solar panels installed at Kettle Foods in Salem, Oregon have provided 5% of the company’s power, exceeding their expectations. In dry seasons, the company can add any excess solar energy it produces to the local power grid.
However, solar power is not appropriate everywhere, says Chris Garvin, vice president at Croxton. “The most effective solar panels need direct sun for maximum value. You want unobstructed solar access and less frequent cloud cover.”
Europe is the leader in wind technology. Denmark already draws 20% of its electricity from wind, a renewable resource. Germany draws 10% of its electricity from wind power. Utilities overcame wind’s sporadic, intermittent electricity production by combining wind and solar energy into dual facilities more reliable than conventional power stations. Further benefits are that renewable solar/wind power is less likely to cause massive outages, its costs do not fluctuate like fossil fuel prices, and it is becoming more affordable. Europe aims to get 22% of its electricity from these renewable sources by 2010. (The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that wind farms occupying a small sector of available land in the Dakotas could cost-effectively meet all of America’s energy needs.)
Easily designed into new construction, a “green roof” can reduce thermal heat gain, improving energy performance. Older, sturdier buildings able to withstand the added weight can be retrofitted with a green roof. “They’re aesthetically pleasing, and can improve quality of life and productivity for employees inside the building,” says Garvin. Ford Motors has installed green roofs on many of its existing factory buildings to positive effect.
Varied electricity costs at hours of peak or nonpeak demand has spawned economical technologies. “Off-peak cooling” produces ice over-night, inexpensively, then stores and utilizes it for daytime use, saving on higher-rate energy costs. Since installing an off-peak cooling system in 2001, Underwriters Laboratories in Northbrook, Illinois has saved $350,000 on annual utility bills: a 52% savings. According to Volker Kotscha, director of facilities operation, they can now cool their entire facility with ice, for a minimum of six hours.
Other current options include natural gas, fuel cells and generating (or co-generating) some of your own power.
Assessing Your Organization’s Needs
Any approach to greater energy efficiency depends on budgetary, structural and managerial circumstances. One starting point may even provide enough information for a solid, basic plan.
“Get an energy audit,” says Shelton. “If you hire an engineer to do nothing more than look at your energy use, that consultation will pay for itself many times over. At any business, I can usually recommend ways to reach a 20% reduction in energy costs, with less than a two-year payback.”
For strategic long-term thinking about energy use, avoid obsolescence and maintain higher values. “Today, people brag that their building meets every code,” says Croxton. “But every time the energy code increases, that building is out of compliance. Constructing on the borderline, on the threshold of failure, is the highest risk a building can have. Intelligent design lessens all risks.”
Before suggesting any changes in your organization’s current energy arrangements, ask an electrical contractor, service company or your own engineering department to identify and make modifications. Significant changes, like solar panels, require consultation with an environmental or mechanical engineer, or other expert.
They will also require approval. “You’ll have to convince senior management to make an investment now,” Gupta says. “A company will do energy efficiency only if it’s cost-effective. Can you make the case that operating costs will decline? Look at these as energy costs rise and suggest doing something smarter and better.”
Some of the best rewards of energy-efficient design cannot really be measured. At Chattanooga’s Development Resource Center, the surroundings have had a positive effect on employees “They’re proud of the building, and like to invite people here because it’s aesthetically pleasing and very impressive,” says Wells. “They take advantage of the outdoor spaces—they go ‘out to lunch’ right here.”
A group of Herman Miller employees moved to another company for higher wages, but soon asked for their former jobs back. Their reason? After years in the day-lit Miller plant, they could not bear to work in a dim, dark environment—even for better pay.
In fact, Herman Miller has achieved the complete energy loop: they have reduced their energy use, lowered their expenses, and economically developed a profitable product (compact, high efficiency task lights) that helps purchasers reduce their energy use and lower their expenses.
Carol Milano is a New York-based freelancer specializing in healthcare and environmental topics. She is a frequent contributor to RM.