Integrated System Packages For Deep Energy Retrofits In Commercial Buildings
energyⁿ manager|April - June 2019
This article presents opportunities and challenges for implementing deep energy retrofits in commercial buildings and describes research efforts to develop scalable energy efficiency packages.
Paul Mathew & Cindy Regnier

Meeting energy and carbon reduction goals in the building sector calls for aggressive energy efficiency measures in both new constructions and existing buildings. This requires both savings depth (% energy reduction per building) and breadth (% of building stock addressed). This article presents opportunities and challenges for implementing deep energy retrofits in commercial buildings and describes research efforts to develop scalable energy efficiency packages. While the research is primarily targeted at the US building stock, it may offer useful insights for India's rapidly expanding building sector.

There is already a wide array of proven, commercially available energy efficiency technologies and strategies to achieve deep energy savings in new and existing buildings. According to the New Buildings Institute, there are almost 600 net-zero energy buildings in the United States [NBI 2019]. However, for most of the market, there remains a stubborn and persistent "adoption gap" for energy efficiency, i.e., the difference between the techno-economic potential and adoption of energy efficiency solutions is substantial. Various roadmaps and action plans over the years have identified a range of barriers and opportunities to address this gap [e.g., McKinsey 2009, CEC 2015], including awareness, cost-effectiveness, access to financing, workforce training, ease of use, etc.

The current practice in building energy retrofits is to treat each building as a unique engineering project, making retrofits difficult to scale. Furthermore, such retrofits are often too disruptive to building occupants and activities because they are not aligned with the real estate life-cycle. Put simply, it's not currently easy to implement state-of-the-art advanced integrated building system technologies that yield deeper energy savings. There is growing consensus in the building industry that using systems approaches may well be a "game changer" and will become increasingly necessary to achieve future meaningful and cost-effective energy savings in buildings (ASE 2017, Regnier et al. 2018a). However, advanced integrated systems remain underutilized for a variety of reasons: they often require significant engineering expertise to ensure that they are designed, integrated, commissioned, and operated effectively. Utility incentives, if available, are only possible through custom programmes with narrow eligibility requirements and often entail overly cumbersome measurement and verification (M&V). Savings uncertainty and persistence issues remain a real or perceived risk, which in turn hinders financing based on savings.

One approach to address the adoption gap is to better coordinate and align energy efficiency with the actual business of real estate. Toward that end, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) is leading a research project sponsored by the US Department of Energy to develop and field-validate packaged solutions that opportunistically incorporate energy efficiency within real estate life cycle events that are happening every day in the building sector. The intent is to significantly reduce transaction costs for owners and service providers through technology combined with business process integration, standardization, and streamlining throughout the real estate delivery chain.

The realities of the real estate business

LBNL conducted research to understand and characterize the real estate life cycle from the perspective of intervention points for energy efficiency and their associated stakeholder processes, priorities and sensitivities (Mathew et al. 2019). The summary of these findings is provided below.

We identified seven themes:

1. Payback is (almost always) still important

How long of a payback period is acceptable? The most common responses fall in the three- to five-year range. However, several organizations and individuals that we talked to clearly steer go/no-go project decisions away from energy and toward proposed projects' ancillary or non-energy, occupant-facing benefits.

2. Packaging and standardization of solutions are valuable

The prospect of standardized, drop-in energy efficiency solutions with well-vetted energy savings was welcomed by almost all interviewees. Time urgency was cited as a big obstacle/factor in fit-outs and renovations, and commoditization of solutions was seen as highly beneficial and much more likely to result in energy efficiency advances than customized approaches.

3. Get in the specs

The importance of having a hard-wired directive or preference - whether housed in a set of specifications, design standards, guidelines, 5-year plans, or even, in one instance, a purchasing portal - cannot be overstated. The predilection to avoid headaches and go with a known, replicated solution is a very strong one. As one respondent put it, “what's easy gets done."

4. Timing is critical

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