Embracing New Technologies

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Program recently released a report noting that new building products and technologies are both here and on the horizon that can only give school administrators hope for future reduced energy consumption and, therefore, increased savings on energy costs.

According to the report Building R&D Breakthroughs: Technologies and Products Supported by the Building Technologies Program, an investigation was conducted by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) “to identify and characterize commercially available products and emerging (near-commercial) technologies that benefited from the support of the Building Technologies Program (BTP) within the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The investigation specifically focused on technology-oriented research and development (R&D) projects funded by BTP’s Emerging Technologies subprogram from 2005-2011.”

PNNL’s investigation, says the report, “identified 20 commercially available products and 78 emerging technologies. These technologies were grouped according to the following [nine] major R&D areas: building controls, envelope, HVAC and refrigeration, LED devices, LED materials, OLEDs, other lighting, water heating and windows.”

The available and emerging products and technologies are distributed across the nine R&D areas as follows:
  • Building controls: four emerging;
  • 
Envelope: two commercially available, nine emerging;
  • HVAC and refrigeration: three commercially available, 19 emerging;
  • LED devices: four commercially available, six emerging;
  • LED materials: 20 emerging;
  • OLEDs: 8 emerging;
  • Other lighting: four commercially available, two emerging;
  • Water heating: two commercially available, six emerging; and
  • Windows: five commercially available, four emerging.
PNNL also identified 86 additional “potential” technologies that are more than three years from commercialization.

This is exciting news. Administrators at cash-strapped school districts — which amounts to every school district, really — have to be excited to know that these products will assist them in reducing energy consumption and, thus, reducing spending. That excitement is often tempered by a healthy dose of fear of the unknown. Jeff Bisberg, CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based Albeo Technologies, which produces industrial-strength LED lighting, explains. “With any new technology, there are different performance points,” he says. “I think we get accustomed to traditional technology, and it’s somewhat difficult to move to new technology.” He cites moving from an analog to a cellular to a smart phone, where, for each, there are different ways to interact with the technology and different expectations.

The same is true for lighting. “The rate of change of technology in education is speeding up,” Bisberg continues, “but lighting is a technology that hasn’t changed for ages and folks know what to expect when they put in an incandescent or fluorescent fixture.” Not surprisingly, when administrators contact his firm, their primary concern is if the new technology is really better than the old and whether it’s worth the initial cost.

“We work to educate administrators,” Bisberg says. “We focus on return on investment.” For example, he shows the hidden costs associated with traditional technology, even creating a spreadsheet analysis using the customer’s numbers to prove a true return on investment. Next, he brings in the local utility company, most of which are supporting LED initiatives, for which there are both state and federal utility rebates available. Finally, he works with the district to do the research needed for the rebate and complete the associated paperwork.

David Potovsky, senior project developer for Borrego Solar, which has offices throughout California and in the North East and offers school districts the ability to finance their solar installations through Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), continues Bisberg’s thread. He notes that administrators are becoming sophisticated in looking at energy efficiency’s low-hanging fruit, which includes initiating subsidized projects for increased energy savings. Subsidized projects only make sense in terms of the overall budget. “Operating budgets have been slashed for four and five years in a row,” he notes, “and administrators are looking for any way to accumulate savings to preserve teachers’ jobs. The money saved on energy comes out of the same budget as teachers’ salaries. If you can save money in the general fund, you can save jobs; it’s that simple of a relationship.”

“It’s all about the cost,” echoes Viviane Chan, director of Sales and Marketing for Unicel Architectural Corp., a Canadian company with offices worldwide that produces specialty glazing, skylights, solar shading systems and custom structures. In her experience, administrators want good natural light levels to reduce their dependence on artificial light and thus keep energy consumption to a minimum. However, in terms of natural lighting — and most likely in terms of the other building technologies — upgrades come with the additional benefit of occupant comfort. “Administrators have this in mind,” says Chan. “They want to make sure that students are happy and performing.”

Neil Maldeis, PE, energy solutions engineering leader for Trane, which manufacturers heating and air conditioning systems with North American headquarters in Davidson, N.C., observes that administrators will take a long hard look at the new and emerging products and technologies primarily because of student comfort. “Typically administrators are interested in creating the best learning environment for their students. It’s their number-one goal. They’re looking for outcomes: strong attendance, welcoming environments, excellent IAQ, comfortable temperatures.”

Potovsky agrees with Maldeis that saving money is the most important piece of the energy management puzzle, but it’s not the only piece. “With solar, there is an impact to the community in that less carbon is being released into the atmosphere because you’re generating your electricity without carbon as opposed to coal or gas,” he says. “So, first and foremost, it’s a way to save money and teacher jobs. Second, it’s a way to set an example for the community. Third, it can have an impact on the students with the creation of associated math and science curriculum.”

Embracing new products and technologies associated with energy will take time, but administrators will get there. And it will be well worth it. “As a nation, we need to invest in our students and their education,” says Bisberg. “It shocks me when I see reports comparing our students with students from other countries.” It starts with the facilities, he continues, observing that we need to determine how to make schools exciting places where students want to be and that motivate and inspire them to want to learn. New products and technologies go hand in hand with improving education. 

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