Climate Corps 2010: When Buildings Go 'Retro'

EDF Climate Corps

Climate Corps 2010: When Buildings Go 'Retro'

Image CC licensed by Flickr user liber

One of the biggest takeaways from my EDF Climate Corps fellowship this summer is that there is always opportunity for improvement in sustainability -- even at an organization as progressive as Xerox

Companies that adopt a strategy toward energy efficiency must look past the low-hanging fruit to less obvious energy waste, while also monitoring implemented changes to ensure picked fruit doesn’t grow back.

Let me paint a quick picture of Xerox’s successful sustainability initiatives:

• Running with the best: The company is ranked 28th in Newsweek’s 'Green Rankings' list of top 500 U.S. companies.
• Manufacturing green products: Xerox's WorkCentre 7428 and 7435 multifunction printers have received accolades for energy efficiency, and its ColorCube product line is well regarded for its waste-reducing solid ink technology.
• Setting green goals: The company's Energy Challenge 2012 program initially aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from 2002 to 2012. After successfully surpassing its goal by 2006, the bar was raised to a 25 percent GHG reduction by 2012.
• Keeping track of progress: The site and facilities energy team on the Webster, N.Y. campus has a running list of energy efficiency opportunities and monitors energy use of the 50-plus buildings on campus.

With so many bases covered, where did I find my opportunity to help Xerox see past its low-hanging fruit? Retrocommissioning.

What’s Old is New Again

When buildings are constructed, they are typically designed for a specific use and occupancy. This tends to change over the years. Building systems should be commissioned as construction is completed to verify that they operate as designed, but often the commissioning process is neglected. A National Energy Management Institute study estimates less than 5 percent of existing buildings have been commissioned. Buildings that have changing uses and those that weren't commissioned after construction can be secretly wasting energy. In both cases, retrocommissioning can help.

As my fellow Climate Corps colleague Sarah Will posted in a blog last month, retrocommissioning is like a car tune-up for a building. While cars have a check engine light, buildings have their own warning signs. A building may be a prime candidate for retrocommissioning if:

• It uses more energy than comparable buildings in your region, using Energy Star’s building Portfolio Manager
• Occupants complain about being too hot or too cold in the building
• Operations and maintenance staff have problems running or fixing building equipment

It’s Cool to Go Retro

Retrocommissioning sounds complicated, but there are many engineering contracting firms that are qualified for the job. Plus, your local utility company and government agency probably offer incentives or rebates to help defray the cost of hiring a contractor.

For instance, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has a program that works to share up to 50 percent of the costs of the study. Add that to the short payback, typically less than two years, and even at the low end of the typical range of 5-15 percent in energy reductions, retrocommissioning looks appealing to a CFO.

During my summer with Xerox, I’ve helped start a pilot program to retrocommission four buildings. The intention is to document energy and financial savings from the pilot and develop a plan to expand the program to include all 50-plus buildings on the Webster campus.

Two weeks after bringing the contracting company on board, we had already come up with a list of 40 needed fixes for the buildings, including sensors that are improperly calibrated and variable speed drives that run pumps at 100 percent all the time. 

While it’s still too early to quantify results, I think we’ll easily meet the typical range of savings, 5-15 percent in energy reductions.  Even a 5 percent energy savings, when scaled up to the whole Xerox campus, would amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars saved annually. With retrocommissioning, even an already green company can become greener.

Dave Rengel is a Climate Corps fellow at Xerox and a Net Impact member. He is an MBA Candidate at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. More coverage of the Climate Corps program is available at This content is cross-posted on the Environmental Defense Fund Innovation Exchange Blog.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user liber.