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AU’s Energy & Engineering Staff on Net Zero Energy

By Ravi Raman

Solar Panels on AU's Campus

As part of its myriad efforts to be a leader in energy management, the Energy & Engineering (E&E) department at American University currently has a number of initiatives to work towards a net zero energy status. A building, facility, or campus reaches net zero energy when the sum of energy it consumes is equal to the renewable energy it generates.

Net zero energy is important for ecological, social, and monetary reasons. Currently, most energy is generated from dirty fuels that come with costs that far exceed their price. They result in biodiversity loss, global deforestation and desertification, and ocean and air pollution, all of which, if left untended, affect global societies and economies with increasing severity. As global population and development continue to increase at rapid rates, it becomes imperative to drive human activities towards net zero energy solutions as expeditiously as soon as possible.

The three strategies that make net zero a possibility are energy reduction, energy efficiency, and green energy utilization. Although achieving net zero energy is challenging as there are always competing priorities in an organization, a dedicated team with an understanding of net zero strategies and how the building is or will be used can make it a possibility.

Energy Reduction

To achieve energy reduction in the buildings at AU, E&E engineers have installed sub-meters campus-wide that measure energy consumption for domestic water, process water, electricity, and steam production. The data collected from the various meters are input into the Department of Energy’s Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager (ESPM) energy benchmarking software tool and AU’s private sector energy analysis software. They provide E&E’s Energy Conservation Team with analytics for an overall picture of a building’s energy performance, and allow them to make real-time comparisons with other similar buildings nationwide.

AU has tens of thousands of sensors all around campus that feed building data into an intelligent building automation system (BAS) database. The energy analytics software helps the E&E team implement smart BAS programming to ensure greater energy efficiency in buildings throughout the campus. Intelligent programming includes optimizing HVAC systems’ run times to match building activities, and installing demand control ventilation to ensure that systems are not operating or conditioning spaces when they are not needed. The energy analytics also inform the E&E team about how much and when the university can shave electrical consumption to support utility load reduction initiatives during peak usage periods (i.e. summer). The university’s electrical load curtailment efforts have resulted in energy savings and performance payments from its utility provider, PEPCO.

Another important component in energy reduction is education and outreach. Educating the campus community to take simple actions as part of their daily routines can make a significant impact on energy reduction. In fact, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, simply turning lights off in favor of natural daylight can save up to 40 percent on lighting energy expenses.

Energy Conservation and Efficiency Manager Juan Allen shared his strategy noting, “In our Facilities offices, my co-workers and I manually shift our lighting sources between daylight from our windows, overhead lights, and task lighting (a desk lamp) to use only the amount of light required for the task at hand. In addition to the energy savings, our it helps to keep us engaged in our work.”

Energy Efficiency

Another way that AU approaches net zero energy is to design for efficiency and smart energy use in its building renovations and new construction. Designing for efficiency starts with the development of design and construction standards that are used to develop an owner’s project requirement (OPR). The OPR guides the design team through energy operation and performance standards and leads to the development of a building energy model for new buildings or major renovations to ensure that energy consumption will be substantially less than existing buildings of similar design. Through AU’s commissioning program, the Facilities Management staff ensures that energy-efficient design is the basis for all university construction with its methods utilized, tested, documented, and taught to the operating staff.

Even if a building is already net zero energy, chances are that there is still room for improving operational efficiency. It is important to keep in mind that buildings need continual maintenance and testing to ensure that optimal efficiency is not lost. Systems that are maintained poorly waste energy, have increased operating costs, and can be a source of customer dissatisfaction. To ensure optimal efficiency, AU’s E&E team combines government and industry best practices to establish preventative maintenance tasks.

Efficiency projects for existing buildings have included changing constant volume air handling units (AHU) to variable air volume (VAV) systems, installing variable speed drives on cooling towers, replacing pneumatic control systems with direct digital controls (DDC), and replacing old chillers with more efficient units that use ozone-friendly refrigerant. The E&E team also has led many LED lighting retrofitting efforts to replace less efficient metal halide, fluorescent (contains mercury), and incandescent light fixtures. Bender Library, Sports Center Garage, Katzen Art Garage, and the Butler Pavilion Tunnel all have benefitted from retrofitting efforts.

Green Energy Utilization

The third component of AU’s energy strategy is to buy both renewable energy generation equipment and renewable energy. AU’s onsite renewable energy generation equipment includes solar panels and solar hot water tubes. Where possible, AU also has taken advantage of more efficient and economical means to source renewable energy. Since January, AU has sourced 50 percent of its electrical power from a solar farm in North Carolina via a power purchase agreement with Duke Renewable Energy. AU also purchases renewable energy credits (REC) wherever switching power suppliers is not an option, and where electricity does not come renewable sources.

What You Can Do

For a more detailed list of good energy behaviors and actions that you can take, visit E&E’s How You Can Contribute webpage. Also, be sure to report energy waste or energy conservation and improvement ideas to the Energy & Engineering team via