October 9, 2009
  With New ARRA Stimulus Funding, DOE’s National Accounts Program Expands Big Box Sustainability
Partnerships between government, building owners, (and architects) yields energy efficiency collaboration and research

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

How do you . . . Work with a government agency to define energy performance in commercial buildings?

Summary: With a definitive recognition that buildings are the single largest source of energy consumption, the federal government is looking to triple or quadruple their investment in building energy modeling and performance monitoring.

With an additional $53.5 million of funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Department of Energy (DOE) is adding 50 to 75 more corporate partners in their Commercial Building National Accounts program, which uses DOE labs to help owners of large commercial building fleets design and build more energy efficient properties. This month, the agency will post a call for new projects. The program now has 23 such partners, including big box retailers Best Buy and Target, as well as grocers like Whole Foods and Supervalu. Each will get access to the DOE’s technical energy performance expertise for free in order to help them design and build one new property that’s 50 percent more energy efficient than ASHRAE 90.1 standards, and renovate a property that’s 30 percent more efficient than the standard performance of a similar benchmarked company building. The DOE labs (including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) can help select architects and designers for the corporate partners, and act as adjuncts to the design team. The program assists its corporate partners from pre-design planning energy modeling to post-occupancy performance monitoring. It also assists designers in locating sustainable materials and documenting lessons learned. Each corporate commitment to the program lasts five years.

When the program’s corporate partners have completed renovations or new buildings or selected an energy benchmarking facility to define typical energy performance, DOE technicians install monitoring devices to give detailed reports on how energy is being consumed for plug load, lighting, and HVAC, systems. The program also examines water use.

Lowering risks, increasing profits
These partnerships lower the cost of sustainability research and development for the corporate partners. “We reduce the risk of them trying to go low-energy,” says Dru Crawley, who leads the DOE’s commercial buildings team. Companies that work with the National Accounts program are less likely to lose money by improperly installing and maintaining energy efficient systems they may not have been familiar with. Without access to the DOE’s expertise and technical capabilities, this risk is magnified because of the premium costs attached to some sustainable building systems.

Crawley says that for some retail companies with very tight profit margins of 3 to 10 percent (like grocery stores), there’s even more potential to turn energy efficiency into profit because of the relatively high cost of utilities as compared to the profit margins for goods sold. In such a situation, it takes $33 in sales to offset just one dollar in energy bills. “Energy [savings] can make them a lot more money than selling groceries sometimes,” he says.

Best Buy found that half of their energy costs came just from plasma screen TV plug loads

The year-old program hasn’t had any completed buildings yet (though two are set to break ground this spring), but the DOE and their partner companies have made several fascinating discoveries about how energy is consumed in large commercial buildings. One hotel partner found that laundry was consuming more energy than lighting. Target has already found a way to drop lighting energy use down to less than half of what is allowed by ASHRAE 90.1. Best Buy found that half of their energy costs came just from plasma screen TV plug loads.

Over the past few years and over the life of the program, Crawley says he’s seen a vast increase in commercial building owners’ interest in energy efficiency, primarily because they now see it as a cost center they can affect. Previously, energy costs were considered to be unassailable and unavoidable, he says.

Sharing the savings
ProLogis, a Denver-based warehousing company, is one of the National Accounts corporate partners, and they’re planning to measure the energy efficiency of a new building in order to establish an energy use baseline for a standard property. The company (which has 15 million square feet of LEED-certified properties in the United States) rents warehouses and shipping spaces to clients, and is thus one step removed from the immediate energy costs savings that more sustainable buildings offer. “We want to learn what changes we can make that work for us both economically, but then result in significant energy savings,” says Sarah Martinez, ProLogis’s sustainability analyst.

The support of the DOE labs has given Whole Foods the confidence and expertise to move forward with trend-setting sustainable projects

Whole Foods has selected a site for a new energy efficient store in Raleigh which they hope will be open by 2011. Together with their architects at Greenberg Farrow in Atlanta and the DOE, they are dealing with how best to use the store’s roof space, day lighting schemes, thermal envelope, as well as heating, cooling, and refrigeration systems. Whole Foods’ Kathy Loftus, who works on sustainability and energy issues for the grocer, says the support of the DOE labs has given her team the confidence and expertise to move forward with trend-setting sustainable projects. “We’ve been talking about it, and we’ve been trying to implement it, but it’s not as easy as if you have an organization like the DOE behind you with their labs proving it,” she says. Loftus also says she’s appreciated the integrated design approach the program has instigated, which has gotten all design and construction stakeholders collaborating and sharing information early in the process to design a more sustainable end product.

Whole Foods’ architects at Greenberg Farrow (who are responsible for the new building’s interior fit-out and most of its energy efficiency features) say this kind of information sharing has been one of the most eye-opening aspects of the National Accounts program, especially when the DOE shares information among various program partners. “It’s given me insight into what other folks are doing,” says Greenberg Farrow’s Mitch Deutsch, AIA.

Loftus hopes that once these energy efficiency findings are spread among the corporate partners, her company will be able to spread them among their entire design and construction portfolio. “We believe that most of what we get out of this project will have modules that will apply to almost all of our development moving forward,” she says. “That’s really the beauty of it. It will be replicable [and] scalable.”


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