Powering Down at State Buildings
Energy Audits Help States Save Money, Create Jobs
By Brydon Ross, CSG Director of Energy and Environmental Policy
Alaska spends more than $640 million each year to power, heat and cool more than 5,000 public buildings in the state.
The state could easily trim those costs by nearly 20 percent.
A November 2012 white paper by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, the state’s public housing and weatherization entity, found the state could save more than $125 million in energy costs each year if comprehensive “investment grade audits” were applied at facilities. Those audits provide a detailed overview of a building’s energy use, operation and maintenance factors, and the condition of the structure—such as the foundation, roof and windows.
“It’s finally getting known on a national level that energy efficiency is no longer just a concept,” said John Anderson, a weatherization program officer with the agency. “Energy efficiency is huge and the impact it has on job creation, and the benefits seen in power reductions, are being felt in Alaska.”
Alaska is just one example of how states interested in cutting spending, reducing energy consumption and harmful air emissions could utilize energy audits of public buildings to pay big dividends in the future. A 2005 report by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory found that energy audits made up only 2.2 percent of the federal funding provided to states in the State Energy Program, but delivered 16 percent of the actual energy savings for the entire program.
Although audits are just one component of a multi-faceted energy-efficiency strategy, they provide important guidance to help states strategically plan investments.
Simple Solutions in Alaska
The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation used funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to benchmark the energy use of the state’s largest municipal buildings to conduct more than 300 investment grade audits.
Many of the audits’ key findings encapsulated in the agency’s report suggested relatively simple solutions could address common problems found across the state’s buildings portfolio.
“Operations and maintenance issues were probably the largest component we found,” Anderson said. “The heating and cooling systems of the buildings were not being operated properly. Some of the maintenance staff simply didn’t have the training to operate many of these complex systems at schools and hospitals.”
For instance, the agency found one school was using three times the amount of energy as another similarly sized school in the same region because maintenance staff members were operating the power systems manually and had turned off portions of the system they did not know how to use.
The white paper also found many of the audited facilities’ mechanical and ventilation systems were outdated, had limited or no insulation and contained unrepaired gaskets around windows, contributing to unnecessary energy loss.
Officials with the agency said having the detailed data from the audits is integral to the future success of the state’s energy efficiency revolving loan program, which leveraged Recovery Act funds to create a $250 million resource for the agency to issue bonds for municipalities or schools to make building upgrades or retrofits.
The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation estimates the energy savings from the retrofits will help pay for the actual loan those communities receive, with an average project seeing a 30 to 40 percent reduction in energy use and an average payback within seven to eight years.
“Our governor and legislature have made a huge commitment to energy efficiency,” said Stacy Schubert, director of governmental relations and public affairs for the agency.
She said the agency has received more than $500 million for its home energy rebate and weatherization program for low-income Alaskans.
“We’ve seen 30 percent efficiency improvements from those projects that have been independently verified, which brought energy savings and supported jobs.” said Schubert.
‘Leading by Example’
Massachusetts has been ranked as the most energy-efficient state in the country for the second year in a row by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
The state has aggressively used energy audits and employed a host of energy efficiency measures for several years. The efforts began with Gov. Deval Patrick’s 2007 “Leading By Example” executive order to help modernize publicly owned state building codes, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve conservation of natural resources.
“We estimate that our energy efficiency projects at state facilities will reduce energy bills by almost $200 million and reduce about 700,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases from going into the atmosphere,” said Eric Friedman, who directs the commonwealth’s Leading by Example program.
“By the end of 2014, during the Patrick administration, we as a commonwealth will have addressed energy use in every single facility within our state portfolio,” Friedman said. That projection will mean the state has examined the energy use and instituted efficiency measures for more than 75 million square feet of space.
Friedman noted that state entities typically have a difficult time managing energy spending because of their sheer size and the way infrastructure data is tracked.
Historically, the only way states were able to get energy information was through examining utility bills that provided only monthly account data. Facility managers at college campuses with dozens of buildings, for example, would only know how much energy was used on an aggregated basis and would never know how much each individual building was using or recognize specific anomalies within their systems.
To address this knowledge gap, the state contracted with a private company to install 1,300 energy meters for 25 million square feet of space in 400 state buildings, which in essence provided a real-time energy audit with immediate response solutions for system operators.
“We can now track building-level data, which is extraordinarily helpful to know where to target energy efficiency efforts,” Friedman said.
Managers now have access to data showing building energy performance that can track seasonal changes and provide comparisons to help pinpoint problems. Friedman noted that the meter program helped discover a quirk in the air conditioning system at a state university that was actually heating a building in the summer instead of allowing the facility to heat naturally with increasing outside temperatures.
“The university estimated they saved close to $30,000 over two months just from that single building,” he said.
The metering program, he said, is an important piece of the overall strategy to meet Patrick’s objectives. It helps agencies understand building energy use and where it should prioritize resources.
“We’re focusing on large strategies when they’re available and simple strategies where those make sense, like energy data management and operation efficiency, all with the goal of reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “The reason we’re having success here is that we’ve come at this from a whole host of directions.”