5 tips from energy-efficient building innovators Google and NYU

5 tips from energy-efficient building innovators Google and NYU

The commercial and academic organizations participating in the seven-year-old NYC Carbon Challenge have collectively reduced emissions by 190,000 metric tons so far — the equivalent of taking 26,000 homes off the current electric grid.

Just as important, the measures that helped them get there have saved an estimated $170 million, according to program coordinator Jenna Tatum.

The challenge officially calls upon participants to reduce building-based greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent before 2017. Right now, it covers 220 million square feet (representing 5 percent of citywide emissions) including 17 universities, 11 hospital networks, 12 businesses and 18 residential management firms.

Certainly, emissions reductions are a big goal but the ulterior motive is to help New York City gather cost-effective ideas to guide future policies.

"We have laws in place to provide building owners with certain information and require certain upgrades but that's not enough to get us to our goals," said Tatum during a VERGE Salon NY panel discussion.

So far, at least six organizations in the program have met or surpassed the 30 percent target (Barnard College, Fashion Institute of Technology, New York University, Rockefeller University, New York Hospital Queens and Weill Cornell Medical College).

According to Tatum's progress report last week, the universities collectively have managed a 20 percent emissions reduction; hospitals have produced a 13 percent cut; and commercial firms have recorded a 16 percent decrease in absolute emissions, while cutting intensity by 16.8 percent (against their base years).

What can we learn from these pioneers? Two high-profile participants — New York University and Google — shared their insights during the VERGE Salon NY panel last week. NYU is one of the longest standing participants; it has reduced emissions by 33 percent and is now shooting for 50 percent by 2017. Google, meanwhile, has cut carbon by 31 percent, doing so faster than any other organization in the program. Here are five practical ideas from the people behind their initiatives.

1. Talk about improvements in kilowatt-hours

How often do you hear sustainability managers mention the need to speak the language of business? At NYU, the guy in charge of delivering emissions and energy intensity reductions, John Bradley, is also the person responsible for running energy and technical services. "I always talk kilowatt-hours, and I also pay the bills," Bradley said.

Plus, he knows which measures people are likely to tolerate or resist. At a 24x7 operation like a university campus, for example, it's difficult to set up one series of automated temperature or lighting settings. "There is no central authority figure," Bradley said.

2. Be open-minded about who can help

Both NYU and Google take a broad view of who can help deliver progress: the university orients all incoming freshman about energy efficiency measures, while Google runs advocacy competitions that pit different offices against each other.

Effective campaigns need to touch everyone from janitorial teams who pick cleaning products to building engineers who are involved day-to-day with keeping systems optimized, said Molly Zinzi, facilities manager for real estate and workplace services for Google New York.  

Zinzi said: "Our building engineers are the guys who make everything work. I think they've been practicing a lot of green strategies forever, but it's sort of like your grandmother's gravy recipe: has she ever written it down or does she just make it? I think part of what we're doing now is writing a lot of this stuff down, so we can measure against it."

3. Position efficiency retrofits as capital investments

Both Google and NYU internally finance investments in energy-efficiency and resource-management retrofits, and they're careful to position their arguments as long-term investment decisions. "We want to be ahead of regulations," Zinzi said.

One example: when Google discovered that it had 45 million gallons flowing underneath one of its buildings because of an underground aquifer, it decided to deploy systems that tap that resource for cooling towers.

"Sometimes, you just have to do it. That's not to say that we're not tight about all of our budgets, we are held to extremely strict standards, despite what you may think," she said. "It really comes down to a per-project basis, and whether it's a long-term investment that promotes infrastructure upgrades."

4. Use interest in resiliency to drive momentum

Although it might sound opportunistic, both Google and NYU are using local interest in resilient infrastructure projects to advance their energy efficiency agendas. NYU's $125 million investment in co-generation technology suddenly looked prescient when most of Manhattan's electric grid was knocked out by superstorm Sandy, helping make the case for future expansions and additional demand-response investments that reduce its grid dependence. (Bradley wants every building on a campus smart grid.)

"Oddly enough, Sandy gave us a shot in the arm, because resiliency became the buzzword. (...) We ended up doing a lot of resiliency, infrastructure work, but we did it sustainably," he said.

5. Be flexible and imaginative

Considering that Google co-founder Larry Page often carries around a handheld volatile organic compounds (VOC) meter to gauge emissions in the company's buildings, it's easy to see why its green team isn't afraid to try out new ideas.

In New York, for example, Zinzi's team is experimenting with an entire office floor organized in four "seasonal" zones with temperature to match — the climate fluctuates from spring to winter and employees can move between them as they wish. "We want people to be as comfortable as possible, and that's subjective," Zinzi said.

At the same time, it allows the facilities team to keep tighter controls on building-management system settings. Rather than changing the thermostat and introducing inefficiencies, why shouldn't an employee change where he or she sits? "Our preference is to seat people based on their teams and collaboration needs, but you don't necessarily have to organize like you did in the past," she said.