Philip Henderson, Senior Financial Policy Specialist, Washington, DC

1828 L st photo.bmpMost people know that upgrading light fixtures and windows can reduce energy waste in office buildings, but even the experts may be surprised to learn just how much energy can be saved by simply running our existing office buildings better.

NRDC’s new report on Real Time Energy Management validates the substantial savings readily available by catching “operational stray” in buildings, and the Report provides a roadmap for owners and tenants to improve their buildings and save money with similar projects.

The fact is that large office buildings are complicated.  Building systems “stray” -- even in the best buildings. For example:

  • Thermostats are adjusted for a weekend meeting and not re-set to normal schedules;
  • Sensors break, causing fans or pumps to run full-speed when not needed;
  • Software running automated systems can have bugs, triggering systems to start in the middle of the night.

These are normal events in the life of an office building. They must be expected, even in the best buildings. The problem is this: When these normal events of "stray" occur, they can persist undetected for months. Catching “stray” quickly is the goal of real-time energy mangement.  It reduces wasted energy, saves money for owners and tenants, protects equipment from wear and tear, and makes for better buildings.

A case study in savings

In our report, we examine the Real-Time Energy Management project of Tower Companies in three large office buildings it owns and operates in downtown Washington, D.C.  Tower’s buildings were already high-performing buildings -- two were rated as ENERGY STAR® buildings and the third was very close to receiving that rating before the project began!

In the first year of the project, Tower reduced electricity use by 23% in one building, 17% in another, and 7% in the third, for an average 13% across all three buildings. In Year 1 of the project, their utility expenses for these three buildings went down by about $220,000, about $75,000 in savings above the costs for the energy management project.  All that in year 1 alone.

These amounts probably understate the actual savings. The implemented measures will likely save energy beyond our study period. And Tower expects reduced maintenance expenses: For example, preventing a chiller from turning-on at night when it should stay off will lengthen the life of this expensive equipment, and running fans at lower speeds will reduce wear and tear on the machinery.

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For more details, please see the Report here.

Why these results matter to building owners: 

In these office buildings, as in most office buildings, the owner allocates a substantial portion of utility expenses to the tenants in the building. This means the tenants, not the building owner, will realize much of the immediate benefit of the energy savings.

But Tower reasonably expects to obtain higher rents, higher occupancy, and higher building values from reduced energy expenses. Many tenants will pay a premium to be in a building with a strong efficiency rating, and some tenants are committed to only lease space in high-efficiency buildings, like the General Services Administration.  

Owners of office buildings should worry that they are wasting money on wasted energy and that without active energy management their buildings will be left behind by the market. 

Why these results matter to building tenants:

Tenants should worry that they are paying every month for the cost of wasted energy. Tenants in just about every office building can be fairly sure that systems in their building “stray” – they run at night or weekends when not needed or at levels not needed. The question is this: what is the building owner or operator doing to quickly catch the stray when it occurs?

Tenants should request landlords to obtain estimates for energy management services and encourage them to adopt services when it appears cost-effective. When shopping for new space, tenants should seek buildings where the owner has energy management services in place or will agree to implement it.

Based on what we have seen in our study, plus results of other studies, including one from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs and one presented at the Conference on Building Commissioning, substantial savings are there, ready for the taking, merely by paying closer attention to “operational stray” in our office buildings.