What we Mean by Altenative Energy Sources

First published in Facility Executive Magazine

It’s official. Starting in 2020, all new homes built in California will be required to have solar panels installed. Although there are some exceptions—for instance, homes built in shaded areas—it is the first housing rule of its kind in the United States. Because California is still known as a trail blazer in many parts of the country, leading the way in new trends and standards, this ruling is expected to be replicated in other states as well.

This is all part of an ambitious goal California has crafted in the past few years. That goal is for the entire state to be powered by zero-emission energy sources by 2045.* The ultimate goal, of course, is to combat climate change. This is all happening while the Trump administration is going in the opposite direction, encouraging the use of coal and petroleum. But because California now has the fifth-largest economy in the world, the directions it takes are still likely to influence not only other states in the country but also other countries around the globe.

Just so we are all on the same page, whenever we hear the words “zero-emission” energy sources, we are invariably talking about renewable energy, which we can very simply define as energy that comes from a source that is not depleted with use. This includes many of the alternative power sources most of us are aware of:

  • Wind energy
  • Solar power
  • Hydropower, from waterways and dams
  • Ocean thermal, which uses both colder and warmer water to power generators
  • Biofuels, derived from agriculture waste as well as plants such as corn and sugarcane

New Technologies

In addition to these familiar sources, other renewable energy sources and new energy-related technologies are already in use or on the horizon that can help building owners and managers, specifically, reduce their facility’s environmental impact. The goals of these new systems are to help facilities use less or no traditional energy sources and, because these energy-reducing technologies go hand-in-hand with sustainability, help facilities operate more sustainably as well.

Among them are the following:

Microgrids. View microgrids as mini–power plants utilizing natural gas, cogeneration, renewables, and other energy sources to power facilities. The military has been using them for several years to power locations in remote areas of the world where there often are no power grids in place. For facilities, they are commonly used to help owners and managers mitigate costly energy-demand charges; protect against volatility in the energy market; and help facilities achieve net-zero energy status, producing as much energy as it consumes throughout the year.

Sensor Suitcase. These systems are designed to gather information about how a facility uses energy by placing sensors in various locations around the building. Data is collected over a multi-month period and then analyzed by computer software. The “suitcase” then may be able to recommend ways to improve energy efficiency in the facility.

Sustainability Dashboards. Some of these systems are very cost effective. Sustainability dashboards have similar goals as sensor suitcases: to help building owners and facility managers know such things as how much energy, water, and fuel is being consumed in the building and then offer recommendations to reduce consumption. However, sustainability dashboards are designed to measure other key performance indicators (KPIs) as well. By measuring and monitoring additional KPIs, these systems provide a broad-range picture of how effectively a facility is reducing its environmental impact.

At least one of these systems takes this technology a step further. Referred to as an “engagement tool,” this is an interactive technology that helps educate and inform managers and building users as to how well a building is performing when it comes to sustainability. The data and information is taken from the “dashboard” and then display on large monitors placed in strategic locations in a facility. This allows building users to see firsthand, using a variety of numbers and images, the steps a facility is taking to reduce its environmental impact, promote sustainability, and lower operating costs. These engagement tools have proven very effective in helping employees, especially younger workers, understand what steps their employers are taking to reduce consumption and the organizations efforts to protect the environment.

IoT. Some observers say that IoT—the Internet of Things—was created for the commercial real estate industry. Using IoT building management systems has improved building performance by helping facilities become more energy efficient and use all-natural resources more responsibly. Essentially, IoT refers to a variety of technologies and applications that use sensors to connect devices within locations to generate data. In commercial facilities, this data can be used to help owners and managers track such things as lighting use and energy consumption, room temperatures, building use, and other metrics. It even provides predictive insights. Owners and managers know more precisely when, for instance, HVAC systems need to be turned on to accommodate building users and the appropriate time to turn these systems off, to help reduce energy consumption.

Energy Optimization Systems. Stanford University has been experimenting with these systems with considerable success. Take this very simplified example of how these systems work: With an energy optimization system, the heat generated from building cooling systems is used to heat water. This significantly reduces water-heating costs as well as the need for gas-fired burners, which emit greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

What About the Tenants?

Some of the technologies discussed here are inexpensive while others can be quite costly. Knowing that certain innovations may require significant capital up front, many owners and managers wonder, one, will these technologies pay off, and two, how will they affect building users?

As to the first concern, we must realize that even taking incremental steps to reduce energy consumption and transfer to alternative energy sources can pay dividends. For instance, the steps mentioned earlier to measure and monitor KPIs can have a meaningful impact. We must view these steps as part of a journey, ever expanding into the future.

As to the tenants, comfort does not need to be sacrificed when incorporating these technologies or switching to alternative energy sources. Take, for example, the University of Louisiana. When the university builds a new campus building, the state does not increase the school’s operating budget to cover the heating and air-conditioning costs of the new facility. The school has to find ways to cover these costs.

To do so, they invest in creative solutions to cool and heat these locations, often turning to alternative energy sources. This powers the buildings while at the same time making them far more energy efficient. The result has proven very positive. The campus has 11 new LEED-certified buildings, and according to Harlan Sans, the school’s chief financial officer, “sustainable buildings often don’t just look better [than traditional buildings], but are more comfortable to work and study in as well.”

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Green cleaning and sustainability, and CEO of Sustainability Dashboard Tools LLC, for measuring and monitoring sustainability efforts of a facility with the goal of reducing operating costs. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning,” is on the Board of the Green Sports Alliance, and has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF). He is now helping jansan professionals turn sustainability into cost savings. He can be reached at steveashkin@ashkingroup.com


*Hawaii has a similar goal of being 100 percent powered by zero-emission energy sources by 2045.