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Weather Report
Electricians spark rally for zero-net-energy usage
Updated On: Dec 11, 2012
Byron L. Benton, training director, Alameda Co. (left); Drew Radachy, Novo Construction (center); Victor Uno, business manager, Electrical Workers Local No. 595 (right) oversee a structure in the vanguard of green building design.

Except for three spiral wind turbines and a solar panel tree planted in front, the building at 14600 Catalina St. in San Leandro looks like the other nondescript industrial structures that surround it. The former data center is taking on new life as one of few buildings in the region and state that will produce as much energy as it uses, or even more.

An East Bay electrician’s union bought the 46,000-square-foot building in 2010 to house a training center for apprentices. Union leaders saw an opportunity to teach future electricians about energy efficiency, and create a center that embodies the most current and sustainable practices.

“We were willing to spend more up front because we know we’ll recuperate the costs in savings over time,” said Byron Benton, training director for the Alameda County Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee. “We wanted to do this also because this is what we train our apprentices for.”

The training center is a partnership between the National Electrical Contractors Association, which represents electrical contractors and employers, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union.

While planning the renovation, union leaders considered various green alternatives such as pursuing LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Instead, leaders decided to reach further to meet U.S. Dept. of Energy guidelines for zero-net-energy buildings.

Zero net energy is a concept that is gaining traction with policy makers and the commercial real estate industry. In 2008, the California Public Utilities Commission set a goal for all new commercial construction to achieve zero net energy by 2030. President Barack Obama established a national goal in 2011 to improve energy efficiency in commercial buildings by 20 percent during the next decade.

In 2009, nationwide contractors and government agencies launched the Zero Energy Commercial Buildings Consortium, an association working to identify barriers to zero net energy and recommend ways to achieve it. Zero net energy in essence means achieving low energy consumption and offsetting that consumption with renewable energy, said Jeff Harris, senior vice president of the Alliance for Saving Energy, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization that advocates for energy efficiency.

“(Zero net energy) is a challenging target,” Harris said. “It’s easier to achieve in a relatively friendly climate like in California. It’s also easier for a building that is modest in its energy demands.”

Only a few dozen buildings in the country qualify as zero net energy. Even as the practice catches on, Harris said, not every building will be able to meet the criteria.

“It’s a good rallying cry,” Harris said. “It’s more tangible and salable than saying, ‘Let’s take 80 percent savings out of buildings.’ A building could generate energy onsite or offsite.”

Most zero-net-energy buildings are publicly owned or financed and were built from the ground up. The Zero Net Energy Center in San Leandro is privately financed and uses an existing structure.

Efficiency is key, said Victor Uno, business manager for IBEW Local 595 and a member of the Port of Oakland Board of Commissioners. The goal is to minimize energy usage while generating energy. “We designed the building to consume less energy than a typical building,” he said, which reduces the amount of energy the building needs to produce.

The Zero Net Energy Center will have classrooms for training, administrative offices and an event space that can accommodate up to 400 people. The building will be completely powered by electricity, a federal requirement for zero-net-energy buildings. The union hired FCGA Architecture and Environmental Building Strategies to design the rehabilitation. Novo Construction began work on the building this year.

“It’s easier to build from the ground up on a green-field site, but that defeats the purpose to use new resources versus renovating an existing building,” said Drew Radachy, director of science and technology for Novo. The contractor stripped the building to its roof and walls to install green features and systems, including energy-generating turbines and solar panels as well as roof monitors, which allow sunlight to come into the building for natural light and temperature control. The monitors channel heat from outside into one room, for example, and transfer it to other parts of the building to regulate indoor temperature.

Even small elements make a difference in energy usage, Benton said, such as using laptop computers instead of desktop models or having occupancy sensors in every room.

While it requires significant effort to achieve zero net energy, the process is not out-of-reach, Uno said. The San Leandro building is expected to consume 75 percent less energy than conventional construction, he said. With 40 percent of the nation’s energy spent powering buildings, the process creates major potential for energy reduction.

“It was not significantly more expensive to do this project than regular construction,” Radachy said. Work is expected to wrap up for a grand opening in the spring. The training program expects to welcome students in August.

The program has about 180 current students training for what Uno called “sustainable careers with good wages, benefits and pensions.”

Benton noted that benefits are not just in saving energy costs, but creating a healthier environment for students along with setting an example for their careers.

“We want to highlight and promote what we do,” he said. “We will train people on systems used in this building.”


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