Government Wants Lab to Be Poster Child For Energy Efficiency

By Stephen Barr
Monday, November 26, 2007

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory wants to live up to its name.

The lab, a part of the Energy Department, is planning one of the most green buildings ever constructed by the government. The project does not lack for symbolism, because the Golden, Colo., lab is a center of innovation -- testing new ways to produce ethanol, convert sunlight into electricity and develop other emerging technologies.

The research support facility is being designed to achieve a platinum environmental rating, the highest awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council, the District nonprofit that sets national standards for green building. The project will replace leased administrative buildings that were built in the late 1970s, when energy conservation amounted mostly to turning down thermostats.

With this project, the Energy Department hopes to become a "showcase and an example and help lead other federal agencies into doing the same kind of projects," said Mary Foreman, assistant manager for acquisition and financial assistance at the lab.

The Energy Department could have settled for a rating below platinum, but "it makes sense as the leaders that we should do what we can to exceed the requirements," said Greg Collette, acting assistant manager for lab operations.

Plans call for a 210,000-square-foot research support facility that will use windows and glass to capture daylight. A new five-acre solar power system will provide up to 7 percent of the electricity that the lab uses. A renewable fuel heating plant, burning waste wood, will provide hot water for the lab, cutting natural gas use by 75 percent.

The project grew out of an executive order issued by President Bush in January, calling on the government to improve its energy efficiency and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by the end of 2015.

"The government is one of the biggest consumers of energy in the world," said Clay Sell, the deputy energy secretary. "We decided that we wanted to do a couple of things -- make a transformational change in the way we are doing business, and not just comply with the executive order but to exceed it."

The department is seeking advice on how to save energy at its headquarters, the James Forrestal Building on Independence Avenue SW. There also are plans to build a 275-kilowatt solar power generating station on the building's roof, Sell said.

Efforts by the government to get greener have been underway for years. The Defense Department, for example, has worked to scrub ozone-depleting substances out of its systems. The General Services Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have long sponsored "green power" initiatives.

The government also has a legacy as a major polluter. Many of the environmental problems can be traced to the Cold War weapons buildup at such places as Rocky Flats, a defunct nuclear weapons plant in Colorado, and the Hanford, Wash., reservation that produced plutonium.

But when it comes to construction, agencies are making "green" one of their priorities. The Air National Guard, for example, plans to build a four-story complex of glass and steel at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, and it is being designed to meet criteria for a silver rating.

The $52 million complex will include interior lighting that adjusts automatically based on the daylight available, and air conditioning and heating routed underneath floors. It should be finished by early 2010.

The project is being paid for through the base closing and consolidation law, and Air Force officials hope it will set an example for energy conservation as other military buildings undergo renovation or expansion.

Out in Golden, officials at the Energy lab said the green building should be completed by the end of 2009. The building itself, estimated to cost $72.9 million, is being paid for by the government, and the waste wood and solar power energy projects will be financed by private companies.

Under the contract for the waste wood heating plant, the contractor will pay for the project's construction and will be repaid over 25 years from savings in energy costs. The contractor for the solar plant will receive federal tax credits and recoup costs through the sale of electricity. The lab intends to pay no more than what it currently pays for electricity.

Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, said the government has its priorities mixed up.

"Since we are forced to pay taxes, those taxes ought to be used for government services, not to set examples for other people," he said. "We pay taxes to get government services, not to build pretty buildings."

Collette said the lab will track spending on the new building to see how much extra it costs to meet the highest green building standards. He noted that the lab began the early stages of design with a top green rating in mind, so officials estimate that "the impact of construction costs should be minimal. That's what we hope to demonstrate."

At the end of the project, lab officials will write a white paper on environmental concerns and construction concerns that they encountered.

After all, Collette said, "If we are going to be doing this kind of research and development, we have to demonstrate it is not cost prohibitive to develop."

Stephen Barr's e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company