U.S. government giving 'green' buildings a boost

What if by 2025 all new office and retail buildings could generate as much energy as they use? David Rodgers of the Department of Energy explains that goal.

Elsa Wenzel
6 min read

q&a Commercial buildings consume nearly one fifth of the nation's energy. But that could change dramatically if by 2025 all new office and retail buildings generate as much energy as they use.

That's the goal of the U.S. Department of Energy's Zero-Net Energy Commercial Building Initiative, announced earlier this month. The Energy Department also is partnering with national labs and companies to advance technologies for office and retail buildings to offset their energy use.

The efforts support the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which calls for spending up to $200 million per year by 2013 to accelerate the development of high-performance green buildings. To start, the Department of Energy is giving $100,000 for green-building prizes to the California Clean Tech Open "start-up in a box" competition.

We chatted about the green-building goals last week by telephone with David Rodgers, deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency in the Energy Department's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. That office is in transition as Assistant Secretary Andy Karsner, a green-tech advocate appointed by President Bush, is leaving at the end of August.

Q: What are some highlights of the department's net-zero building program?
David Rodgers: We've been doing research on competitive technologies, such as solid-state lighting and advanced air conditioning. We've been working at a very advanced level to integrate those technologies into commercial building design and to make sure competitive technologies are working at maximum efficiency.

This program allows us to elevate the level of our work but also include multiple partners at national universities, national laboratories, and companies such as United Technologies or Johnson Controls.

The concept for zero-net energy building is that first you maximize efficiency through better insulation, windows, better lights. Then you add renewable-energy generation, such as solar PV (photovoltaic), geothermal, or even wind energy, so a building instead of consuming energy...can even become a producer.

Andy Karsner and David Rodgers of the U.S. Department of Energy
Andy Karsner and David Rodgers of the Department of Energy Department of Energy/Clean Tech Open

Might that include developing living buildings down the road?
Rodgers: The green roofs or living roofs are a very good application in some locations. That helps improve insulation on the roof as well as water conservation. That's one of the benefits of this program is that it will first look at existing buildings.

Are there parallels for this program in other nations or even regions of the United States?
Rodgers: A lot of countries are working on net-zero energy technologies. We work with the International Energy Agency. The U.S. has helped sponsor, announced at the G8 Summit, the International Partnership for Energy Efficiency Cooperation, to bring together countries that want to advance energy efficiency technologies.

California has been working on zero-energy technologies and utilities are a big partner...It's important that once these things are made in the lab we can get them into the marketplace.

(Andy) Karsner has criticized federal energy policy.
Rodgers: He's my boss...It takes good technology, good policy, and involvement of the market to successfully ramp up deployment of clean-energy technologies. If any one of those pieces is weak, then you don't get as much energy efficiency or clean technology as you want. We need durable, predictable policy so that investors and entrepreneurs can make long-term decisions about entering into the promotion of clean-energy technologies.

Many in the clean-tech sector are wringing their hands about the renewable energy tax credits set to expire.
Rodgers: That's a big deal...What Andy has criticized is the on-off cycle of tax credits...Many people are calling for tax credits that are stable, meaning even if they were at a lower level but lasted for a long time that would be a better alternative.

What's the road map for the commercial building program?
Rodgers: Our goal is, in new buildings, to have all technology ready by 2025 for commercial buildings to be net-zero energy.

You can build a net-zero energy building now but you probably won't get payback over the useful life of the building. We want to bring those technologies down the cost curve. Solid-state lighting has been accelerating very fast and has the potential to reduce electrical consumption by more than half, and it reduces cost by reducing intervals between replacement.

We have just announced a research competition to have partners like Wal-Mart or Target work with one of our national labs to pilot buildings that are 50 percent more efficient than typical. You can't go to zero in one step cost efficiently. We've already proven 30 percent more efficient buildings are more cost-effective.

Retrofits for existing buildings are another solicitation to be announced later this summer to upgrade existing buildings to get 30 percent or better performance.

We also have to make sure technologies are attuned to climate zones so a building that works in Las Vegas might not be efficient for Buffalo, New York. We have the Pacific Northwest lab, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Argonne, and we have the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

Might there be partnership with groups like the U.S. Green Building Council?
Rodgers: We'll be issuing a solicitation for a consortium this summer. That is expected to be composed of organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council, the American Institute of Architects, and other organizations that are aggressively pursuing other goals. The Department of Energy had a big hand in creation on the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards back in the 1990s and we still have scientists working on technology committees.

As commercial buildings integrate more technology, it's important that we have sensors or controls to make those buildings work best. The IT industry is very involved in developing networks and system controls to allow buildings to perform efficiently and integrate with the utility grid so buildings can better manage load.

Any specific companies or technologies that look promising?
Rodgers: We've been working with the Green Grid in the area of data center efficiency. Each of the big IT companies is very actively working in the area of building systems and controls. Rather than mentioning a name or two or three or a dozen, they're all involved.

What about talk of a clean-tech bubble?
Rodgers: I've never really seen a confluence of events where we have high energy prices, a growing awareness of the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and a growing awareness that by innovating in clean-energy technology, we can save money even as we're reducing emissions. That doesn't sound like the ingredients for a bubble. I do see our goal ought to be to accelerate the use of clean-energy technologies in commercial products because then businesses will have a sustainable future.

What might happen with a new administration in Washington? Will there be more support for these kinds of programs? Less?
Rodgers: The energy bill passed with tremendous bipartisan support from both sides of aisle...We're gearing up to work harder and faster to produce more no matter what happens in November.

What role does the Clean Tech Open play?
Rodgers: The partnership for us with the Clean Tech Open is about getting technologies to commercialization faster. In the past we didn't open doors of labs to entrepreneurs and the business community. That's what the Clean Tech Open has been able to do successfully, to come up with new business models. There's been tremendous success in the building sector with great ideas out of last year's Clean Tech Open, like in the area of solid-state lighting.

What's the latest with the Entrepreneur in Residence program?

Rodgers: That's coming out of our office as well...That Entrepreneur in Residence program has already produced some great interest. For example, Foundation Capital is at Oak Ridge. They have great ideas cooking. The whole idea is to go into the lab, get great ideas, and get a business out of it. We're going to expand that program to six other labs. Those are going to be competitively selected. Several have expressed interest.

What's happening to green the Department of Energy facilities where you work?

Rodgers: At the Forrestal Building (in Washington, D.C.), we've done incremental things over the years. We've changed lighting, upgraded insulation. This year we undertook two dramatic projects. We put a solar PV system on the roof. No ribbon cutting yet.

We had an energy service company come and do an energy audit of the building and propose an energy-saving performance contract where they put up money to make improvements to lighting, better heating, and insulation, and we pay them back on savings of utility bills. Hopefully we'll announce that this fall.