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  • Writer's pictureJosh Veblen

Six Sustainable Energy Solutions for Public Buildings

Updated: Jun 12

Public buildings are the core of every city, serving as community hubs where people gather, children play, and learn. Public buildings affect the environment throughout their life cycle—from construction and operation to demolition—by consuming natural resources, energy, and water, and emitting greenhouse gasses. Making public buildings more sustainable will minimize negative environmental impacts and, as a result, enhance the quality of life for all members of the community.

Despite a heightened demand for sustainability—and specific targets established for carbon reductions—a recent report revealed that emissions from buildings have increased by 3% over the last decade. The report stated that over the next twenty years the U.S. must reduce building emissions by an additional 73% to align with the country’s net zero goals. This will be especially challenging for public buildings such as schools, libraries, hospitals, and government offices for the following reasons:

  • High Energy Demand: Public buildings already draw a lot of energy, particularly for heating, cooling, and lighting. And, despite efforts to minimize energy usage, demand is expected to increase in the coming years as temperatures rise, electrification demands increase, and populations grow.

  • Inefficient and Aging Infrastructure: Many public buildings in the U.S. suffer from outdated infrastructure, leading to inefficient energy use and increased operational costs. Upgrading these facilities to enhance energy efficiency and incorporate renewable energy sources is essential yet challenging.

  • Investment in Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: While investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy will lower operational costs and provide a healthier environment, the initial costs and the complexity of infrastructure upgrades can be challenging.

Addressing these challenges requires coordinated efforts involving technological advancements, community engagement and policy support to ensure public buildings can meet future energy demands. This blog explores six workable energy solutions for increasing building efficiency, resiliency and sustainability.

1. Minimize Reliance on the Grid

State and local governments have an opportunity to take the lead in the clean energy transition by powering public buildings with renewable energy such as wind and solar. Like all renewable energy, solar energy offers up multiple benefits. From a financial perspective, solar can deliver substantial cost savings. Ongoing advancements in solar technology, combined with decreasing costs, make it a feasible choice for public building managers.

Governments and municipalities can further facilitate this transition through policies and incentives that reduce financial barriers to solar energy adoption. This is especially beneficial for public bodies, as the savings can be redirected towards other essential services and improvements. Additionally, installing solar across multiple buildings can spur community involvement and investment in renewable energy, paving the way for private sector engagement and public acceptance.

Integrating renewable energy such as solar into public buildings not only aligns with environmental objectives but also brings economic and social advantages, contributing to a more sustainable future.

2. Incorporate Energy Storage

Due to the variable nature of renewable energy sources, energy storage systems help ensure a reliable energy supply. These systems offset the intermittent nature of renewable energy, storing surplus energy from solar or wind sources during peak production times and then distributing it during periods of lower production or higher demand. In addition to stabilizing the energy supply storage systems help balance the power grid by reducing reliance on non-renewable energy sources during peak demand periods. Key benefits for public buildings include:

  • Enhanced Energy Efficiency: By capturing and storing surplus energy, energy storage systems minimize waste and balance demand with supply, reducing both energy costs and the carbon footprint of buildings.

  • Economic Optimization: These systems allow buildings to utilize stored energy during peak tariff periods, reducing electricity bills. They also enable participation in energy markets, offering financial benefits through services like frequency regulation and load shifting.

  • Operational Resilience: On-site energy storage enhances the resilience of public buildings, ensuring continuous power supply even during grid disruptions, which is crucial for critical facilities like hospitals or emergency services.

3. Add Green Roofs and Living Walls

Green roofs and living walls improve a building's insulationreducing the need for heating in winter and cooling in summer. They also absorb rainwater, reduce urban heat islands, enhance air quality, and improve the visual appeal of urban environments. Key benefits include:

  • Reduce the effects of rising temperatures: Green roofs and living walls effectively mitigate the urban heat island effect, common in metropolitan areas where built environments raise temperatures. Plants play a significant role in climate control by absorbing 50% of sunlight and reflecting 30%, which helps cool the surroundings. Indoors, this natural cooling means that air conditioning systems don't have to work as hard, leading to energy savings. (A typical 2-3 story building could experience 15-25% savings in summertime energy costs.) This reduction in energy use also positively affects the local climate around the building and contributes to a broader temperature decrease in the city—by as much as 37.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Green roofs and living walls also filter air pollutants and particulate matter, enhancing air quality especially in semi-arid climates prone to dust.

  • Lower water consumption: Green installations play a crucial role in stormwater management by absorbing and retaining rainwater. This reduces runoff and lessens the load on urban sewage systems, helping to prevent flooding and minimize stormwater overflow pollution.

  • Boost solar system efficiency: Solar photovoltaic panels operate more efficiently when installed over a green roof system. The surrounding micro-climate plays a crucial role since excessive heat can reduce the panels' efficiency. Green roofs can cool the environment, particularly in summer, maintaining the ambient temperature around the panels at or near 25°C, which is optimal for their performance. Additionally, a green roof simplifies the installation of A-frame panels. The greenery provides necessary ballast to secure the A-frames and panels, ensuring they remain stable without damaging the waterproofing layer beneath.

  • Extend roof life: A green roof shields the roofing material from external elements like sun, rain, wind, and temperature fluctuations, potentially doubling or tripling the lifespan of the oof to up to 60 years or more.

  • Improve Biodiversity: Green roofs and living walls introduce vegetation into urban settings, creating habitats for various species and promoting urban biodiversity. They offer refuge for insects, birds, and other wildlife, contributing to ecological balance within cities.

4. Upgrade Lighting Systems

LED lighting significantly reduces energy consumption in public buildings, as it consumes at least 75% less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs. You probably knew that already. What you may not know is that LED's are even more effective when combined with smart sensors. The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart sensor technology has prompted several new lighting advancements.

Lighting interfaces are becoming simpler as the systems themselves become more complex. Highly effective sensors enable lighting fixtures to sense and react to what’s happening around them. Sensors utilize real-time data to adapt lighting to changes in the environment, time of day, and occupancy levels. This automated control of lighting not only conserves energy but also enhances the comfort and well-being of occupants by tailoring light intensity and colors to support human circadian rhythms and activities. Integrating these technologies with other building management systems further streamlines operations and boosts overall efficiency This has expanded the focus of lighting management beyond mere energy savings. Facility managers are now able to integrate new lighting technologies into their building systems to improve occupant comfort, productivity, safety, and overall well-being.

5. Install Automate Building Systems

Building automation systems (BAS) use software and sensors to control a building's systems like ventilation, lighting, and security, optimizing their operation for improved energy efficiency, reduced costs, and enhanced occupant comfort and safety.

Key benefits of BAS for public buildings include:

  • Increased Energy Efficiency BAS reduces energy use and operational costs by automating control over systems such as HVAC and lighting based on real-time data such as occupancy and weather conditions.

  • Increased Occupant Comfort: BAS improves indoor comfort by intelligently controlling lighting and temperature. These systems can adjust lighting to complement natural light patterns, aiding circadian rhythms, and tailoring HVAC settings to maintain ideal comfort levels during the day.

  • Optimized Management and Maintenance: BAS allows for centralized control and real-time monitoring of building systems, enabling faster response to maintenance issues and reducing the need for manual checks.

6. Use Sustainable Building Materials

Whether constructing a new facility or updating existing infrastructure, the selection of materials and construction techniques will have a major impact a building's environmental impact. Utilizing recycled, reclaimed, and locally sourced materials minimizes the environmental impact of both new construction and infrastructure upgrades. In addition to the environmental benefits, sustainable materials can provide increased durability, reduced maintenance, and improved indoor air quality.

In Conclusion

By integrating any or all of these six sustainable solutions public building managers can reduce energy and operations costs while improving both external and internal environments.. By adopting a holistic approach to energy management and building design, public institutions can lead by example, demonstrating the viability of sustainable practices and inspiring broader societal change.

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