Opinion

My Job Is to Police Energy Use in My Office. Here’s How We Got to Net Zero.

It’s true that my co-workers were not happy when I broke the news four years ago that one of the two restaurant-size coffee machines in the office kitchen had to go. One machine went mostly unused, and together the two consumed 1 percent of the total annual energy use of the building. One percent may not sound like much, but our goal was net zero — getting our building to generate as much energy on site as it used over a year — so every bit counted. As the vigilant office energy manager, I saw a simple way to cut some of the waste.

After several conversations and a staff meeting with a data-heavy presentation on the energy use of coffee makers, most of the staff came around to downsizing to one machine. The additional coffee maker was unplugged and retired to a storage closet — still available when needed, but no longer needlessly chugging energy.

Motivating office workers to get to net zero energy may sound daunting. But by paying close attention to every aspect of our energy use, my co-workers and I have seen how even the smallest actions can have an impact on climate change. We now take pride in the fact that the office’s electricity bill is $0. In fact, the local utility pays the Houston Advanced Research Center over $1,000 a year in rebates for the energy our solar panels provide to the power grid.

Some 40 percent of annual global carbon dioxide emissions come from buildings and construction and commercial buildings, which have an average life span of 50 to 60 years and account for around 20 percent of U.S. energy use. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that on average, 30 percent of the energy used in these commercial buildings is wasted.

Some organizations opt for offsetting their emissions by purchasing renewable energy credits instead of paying attention to what they consume. At HARC, our strategy was to install our own rooftop photovoltaic solar plant and look closely at energy efficiency, because both big things and seemingly mundane details matter.

In 2019, HARC’s 18,600-square-foot facility became the first net zero certified commercial office building in Texas, and one of the first 50 in the United States. Our building has also earned an E.P.A. Energy Star I score of 99/100 for the last three years and the highest certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. According to an E.P.A. energy tracking tool, the HARC building now uses 78 percent less energy than the average U.S. office building of comparable size.

It was not easy getting here.

We’ve come to expect some internal resistance to improving energy efficiency, and we respond by offering solutions. Humans are creatures of habit, and there will always be someone who is too cold or too hot in a meeting room or an office. The same person may have a different sensitivity to the same temperature on other days.

That is OK.

Sometimes the solution is relocating staff to different areas of the building based on temperature preferences. We also keep hallways and kitchen areas two to four degrees warmer than meeting rooms and offices to save energy from cooling the common spaces. The key is to be friendly and respectful, and to listen. When we do, we often find that co-workers will reciprocate.

Having a dedicated energy manager like me in an office helps because that person can make sure goals are clear and actionable. You also need good data, which you can get by installing energy meters, conducting energy audits to understand usage, optimizing operations based on the audit results and retrofitting underperforming systems.

One day, our energy dashboard showed a weird pattern in consumption. I walked through the building and eventually found a hot water faucet left half-open by a cleaning crew. I would not have made this discovery so quickly without the energy meter’s information. Unfortunately, energy meters are often the first items cut from the budget of a new facility.

Even though HARC’s building systems are extremely energy efficient, there are still opportunities to reduce our energy consumption. Our building still has so-called phantom loads, or elusive energy uses. They include an ice machine (responsible for 1.5 percent of the building’s annual energy consumption) and other devices that cannot power down entirely, like audio systems, cloud-connected printers and seldom used workstations.

After Covid-19 forced most of our staff to work from home, we adapted the energy consumption in the building to lower occupancy and optimized the schedule of the air-conditioning system. Again, conversations were key before disconnecting one of the fridges, the ice machine and rarely used computers in standby mode.

As we focus on a more sustainable future, we monitor our operations in real time to bring our on-site carbon dioxide emissions as close to zero as possible while supporting the local power utility.

One way we’re doing this is by managing individual sockets with the help of a plug load management company. Since staff started working from home, the sockets switch off automatically each evening and remain off until someone turns them back on, which has led to a 2 percent reduction of the total annual energy consumption of the building.

It’s small actions like these that add up to reduced operating costs that benefit the company and, even more important, a lighter carbon footprint that benefits the planet. All of my co-workers are happy about that.

Dr. Carlos Gamarra is a senior research scientist for clean energy technology at HARC.

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