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The “whole elephant” method for commercial building retrofits

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The term “retrofit” is widely applied to any energy efficiency improvement, including adding to or modifying part of an energy system or upgrading or replacing an entire system altogether. Whereas, almost all comprehensive retrofit projects are customized to meet the unique energy needs of the customer, not all custom retrofits are comprehensive, since many of them target only a single energy system.

Commercial buildings consume 20% of the total energy used in the United States – more than the energy consumed by all the nation’s cars, trains and airplanes put together. A significant portion of this energy can be saved through efficiency in design, systems and operation. Utilities and other efficiency program administrators have long been incentivizing energy efficiency measures that target various energy end uses such as lighting, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.

However, as in the famous Indian legend, in order to truly know what an elephant is, you have to be able to perceive the elephant as a whole. Comprehensive energy retrofits are designed to consider the whole building as an integrated system of interacting sub-systems. Optimizing these sub-systems together offers the greatest opportunity for saving energy.

The comprehensive retrofit calls for a whole-building analysis for optimal energy management. Energy-efficient lighting and windows for instance, can diminish heat loads and make it possible to reduce supply-air flow rates, allowing smaller fans to be installed and possibly requiring a smaller cooling plant. As additional measures such as efficient lighting, high performance windows and skylights, cool roofs and better insulation are introduced, the heat load on the building successively decreases.

ACEEE Report

A new report from ACEEE analyzes retrofit programs that encourage a whole-building approach rather than standard preapproved or prescriptive efficiency measures. We found that the market for commercial building retrofits is growing and there is a huge potential for program involvement.

Effective programs not only help identify savings, but also take the extra step to help procure funding, provide technical assistance and offer incentives for ongoing optimization. In the report, also evident was that the intersection of information technology and energy efficiency have enabled access to granular, real-time energy-use data and advanced analytical capabilities. Software solutions utilizing these data and capabilities are creating new opportunities for whole-building assessments, identification of comprehensive savings, and automated monitoring and tracking of energy-systems performance. We believe that advanced data analytics has the potential to help scale up and prioritize the pool of prospects for comprehensive retrofits.

While most programs have traditionally focused on the largest commercial customers, smaller commercial facilities such as restaurants, nursing homes, clinics and warehouses tend to have similar energy-use characteristics within their own segment and are promising prospects for efficiency programs. Such niche customers are often driven by competitive pressures to improve their operations and are thus highly receptive to program incentives.

Design and Implementation

Each comprehensive retrofit project is unique and requires a sophisticated approach to simplify the relationship with the customer through modelling, measure selection, financing, and implementation. Programs that provide streamlined, end-to-end support tend to have more satisfied customers. Not all projects are completed in one go. Some use a phased approach, with each phase lasting about a year and targeting successively deeper savings. This approach reduces the upfront capital cost and helps secure a longer-term commitment to efficiency.

Buildings are remarkably durable structures, usually outliving their equipment and often even their occupants. Given their large impact on energy consumption, it is imperative to make buildings as efficient as possible. Comprehensive retrofits of commercial buildings have great potential to achieve significant energy savings and commensurate co-benefits.

While building retrofit activity is growing, the total number of projects undertaken through efficiency programs is still miniscule. Although most utilities have some comprehensive program offerings, performance results suggest that there is a tremendous potential for targeting even deeper savings. Barriers exist to customer participation and program development, but exemplary programs manage to address these rather well. New capabilities in tracking, monitoring and analyzing energy-use data at a whole-building level are promising developments that should catalyze the market for comprehensive efficiency retrofits in the years to come.






Sameer Kwatra
Senior Analyst
American Council for an Energy-Efficient
Economy (ACEEE)

Reproduced from the article originally appeared at www.aceee.org

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