GSA's green energy testing benefits federal buildings, commercial manufacturers

Friday - 12/20/2013, 3:32pm EST

Dorothy Robyn, commissioner of GSA's Public Buildings Service

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The General Services Administration has turned federal buildings into labs for green technology. Think tinted windows and programmable lighting systems.

"We use our federal office buildings as a test bed or a beta site to do a rigorous process of evaluation for technologies that we think are promising but that face impediments to broader adoption or commercialization in the commercial market," Dorothy Robyn, commissioner of GSA's Public Buildings Service, told Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp "We think out ability to provide credible objective data can help these technologies break into the market."

Recently, GSA's Green Proving Ground released reports on three new technologies: Variable Speed Mag-Lev Chillers, High R Value Windows and PV Guidance.

Dorothy Robyn, Public Buildings Service commissioner at the General Services Administration

The first new technology focuses on Mag-Lev Chillers, which utilize magnetic levitation to eliminate friction and reduce the need for oil in large air conditioning plants that cool high-rise buildings.

"If you can eliminate that friction and that need for oil, then you can substantially improve their efficiency," Robyn said. "So, we tested out a new technology for a Mag-Lev Chiller and we found that it works quite well. We will be incorporating that as our existing chillers wear out. We will be incorporating Mag-Lev Chillers where that makes sense."

GSA tests all of these new technologies in its own buildings. The agency puts out a competition in partnership with the departments of Defense and Energy for companies to pitch new technologies that they want to try out. Each year, GSA chooses a small number of these technologies to test, matching them up with appropriate buildings.

"We have a low budget, so the manufacturers give us the technology," Robyn said. "DoD has a similar program with which we work closely and they actually provide money. It's two different approaches. But, we get the manufacturers to donate the technologies to us, because they're very interested in having the rigorous, objective test to help them break into the market."

As part of evaluation process, GSA is not just testing how well the technology performs but also how well it integrates into a work space. Are employees comfortable working with the technology? Do they like having it their office?

GSA and DoD are currently testing electrochromic glass — windows that tint darker as the sun comes out.

"It's a promising new technology, but it faces impediments to widespread adoption," Robyn said. "Part of what we're testing is do employees like having that on a large-scale, when you put that all over a building? The whole idea is that you replace shades with this kind of window. So, are they comfortable working in that environment?"

It's too soon for a final verdict on the tinted windows, but Robyn said GSA has them on its building to a limited degree and no one has really noticed them.

"Architects really like the technology," she said. "The challenge that this faces is it's more expensive than regular glass, but it allows you to get by with a smaller chiller, a smaller air-conditioning system, because it's reducing the solar heat gain in the building. There are savings from being able to use a smaller chiller, but it's hard to get engineers to agree to put in a smaller chiller if they're building a new building or renovating a building. They're very nervous about doing that. Nobody ever got fired for putting in too big a chiller, but you definitely could get in trouble if you put too small a chiller."

Once GSA identifies a technolgy as a potential cost-saver for the federal government, the next challenge is figuring out how to pay for installation when a building is being retrofitted.

"That's a big, big problem for us in the current budget," Robyn said. "We are taking advantage of something called ESPCs — energy savings performance contracts. A large company like a Honeywell or a Johnson Controls or Siemens, comes in and anaylizes our buildings and says, 'These are the 10 things we think will make your building more efficient and reduce your utility bill. We will front the cost of installing those improvements. And then, you pay us out of the savings on your utility bill.'"

In 2011, President Barack Obama established a goal for agencies to do $2 billion worth of these performance based contracts by the end of 2013. Obama recently set new goals, since many agencies are on track to meet the first goal.

"Our federally owned GSA buildings are extremely energy efficient compared to their commercial counterparts," Robyn said. "We have advanced meters. We have very sophisticated building analytics that allow us to know how we're doing and to make adjustments in real time. So, we've made big strides. We've got a ways to go, but we've made big strides."

The commercial buildings GSA leases are another matter.

"We know we are paying more for energy in those buildings, but we don't own them," Robyn said. "So, it's harder for us to get at that. We're talking about whether there's a way to use these performance contracts in leased buildings, but I'm not sure there's a good answer to that."

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