Five Ways RMI is Helping Federal Buildings Get to Net Zero

What if the largest property owner in the United States, the federal government, started awarding contracts for retrofitting its buildings based on the contractor’s ability to reach net zero energy use?

Even if the contractors came close to net zero on some of these buildings, the cumulative energy savings would be significant.

To spur that work, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) recently announced what they call the Net Zero Renovation Challenge. In the challenge, 16 companies that already have energy service provider contracts with federal agencies will submit plans to retrofit more than 30 GSA buildings to bring them to net zero energy — or as close as possible.

"GSA’s retrofit challenge is a very big deal," RMI’s Cara Carmichael, a senior consultant with Rocky Mountain Institute’s buildings practice. That’s in part because, according to RMI, these contactors, or energy service companies (ESCOs), may never do business the same way again after taking part in the challenge.

The challenge preceded President Obama’s recent order for $2 billion in energy efficiency upgrades to federal buildings, using energy service contracts to fulfill the upgrades. Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative requires all federal buildings be net zero energy producers by 2030.

In October, RMI hosted representatives from the GSA, Department of Energy, FEMP and each of the 16 Super ESCOs to kick off the GSA’s Renovation challenge.

A panel of independent experts will evaluate the projects based on energy savings, financial and technical innovation and applicability to other federal buildings. The GSA will award contracts to the winning companies.

"While the ultimate goal of the challenge is to accelerate the realization of the goal of net zero energy in all GSA buildings, net zero energy is not a strict requirement for winning," GSA Administrator Martha Johnson’s announcement of the challenge said. "Projects should maximize energy savings in a cost-effective manner and include the creation of a roadmap for attaining net zero as part of the implementation plan."

GSA asked RMI to participate in part due to the success of the Byron Rogers federal office building retrofit in Denver. RMI is serving as a consultant on the project, which should achieve net zero by 2030 and is on target to become one of the most the most energy-efficient office building in the nation. The existing building uses 90 kBtu/sf/yr and the new retrofit design is projected to use about 35 kBtu/sf/yr, a 61% savings.

RMI’ s role in the renovation challenge is to help the ESCOs succeed. RMI promotes an integrative, whole-system approach to achieve profitable deep retrofits. This approach is a highly collaborative and iterative process in which design teams create multiple benefits from single expenditures. These strategies recognize how one kind of efficiency gain can affect other systems and attributes. Improvements to the building envelope, for example, can reduce mechanical system loads and equipment, which may in turn reduce necessary floor area and reduce costs. “By simply recognizing how systems are interrelated, ESCOs can use small improvements to cascade into substantially larger benefits,” says Carmichael.

The ESCOs talked frankly and collaboratively about overcoming the barriers to this kind of deep energy-saving retrofit. The companies identified five main things they and the federal government must do for ESCOs to succeed in meeting the GSA’s challenge, including:

  • Streamlining the contracting processes.
  • Sharing risks for energy efficiency upgrades between the government and the ESCO.
  • Taking into account occupant impacts on energy savings.
  • Taking into account savings from avoided costs. (Avoided costs occur, for example, if a rooftop unit needs $5,000 a year in maintenance and is replaced with one that requires only $1,000 a year, creating operation and management savings.)

Workshop participants also suggested that the GSA aggregate energy service provider contracts across geographies or building types. This may save time and money by streamlining design and analysis and bulk purchasing.

The GSA’s Net Zero Renovation Challenge provides a chance to improve the process for retrofitting government office buildings and dramatically deceasing energy use as a result.

"The GSA is challenging the private sector to partner to go above and beyond, and to do what has never been done before in federal buildings," said Andy Walker, principal engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, who presented a number of case studies of net zero buildings to the ESCO representatives at the workshop.