Four steps to net-zero buildings

August 25, 2022
75F graciously hosted CEEM and members for a happy hour and panel discussion on “future proofing buildings.”

Future Proofing Buildings Event Recap

75F graciously hosted CEEM and members for a happy hour and panel discussion on “future proofing buildings.” Our panelists included Andrea Novak, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at the Saint Paul Port Authority (SPPA), Deepinder Singh, founder and CEO of 75F, and Wade Smith, CEO of EnergyPrint. The discussion was moderated by Frank Jossi, a correspondent for Midwest Energy News and Finance & Commerce.

Panel at 75F event

Working towards a net-zero future

Buildings in Minnesota account for the majority of our energy consumption, both in electricity and heat. Deepinder noted that “building intelligence – not just energy efficiency, but making buildings smarter” will be integral for meeting the future of our grid.

For any building owner interested in working toward net-zero, or even just understanding and improving the efficiency of their buildings, Wade noted there are 4 steps:

  1. Get an accounting of what is going on – baseline data;
  2. Attack the energy footprint – increase efficiency, decrease usage;
  3. Measure after the fact to see your results; and
  4. Source your energy from non-emission sources.

SPPA is looking to expand on this net-zero concept with its new development, The Heights (formerly Hillcrest). This site was a former golf course that SPPA purchased in 2019 as a “buyer of last resort,” due to the site’s contamination. The City of Saint Paul recently approved the master plan for the location, and SPPA is currently creating the covenants they will use to guide the development. Their goals are for it to be a carbon-free community, and they will pursue LEED for Communities Platinum certification. Buildings within the development will be encouraged to install solar, to be 50% more efficient than current code requirements, and to provide electric vehicle charging.

Change drivers in the efficiency industry

The panel discussed the drivers of change within the energy efficiency industry – what is moving companies to invest in these technologies? Wade sees a lot of promise in the trends around ESG investing (Environmental, Social & Governance) and the recent guidance by the Securities and Exchange Commission around ESG disclosures. As large investors are considering ESG factors when making investments, building owners will see more of a benefit from investing themselves in energy efficiency and renewable energy – or, the flip side, by not investing in those improvements, companies and buildings will lose out on investors.

For 75F, “the most energy efficient building control company in the world,” comfort has been the main driver of their customers – improving the comfort of the people within the buildings – and savings are a back end bonus. The panelists agreed that behavior change can be very difficult, so programs are likely to be more successful if behavior change is not the focus. Xcel Energy’s current time of use pilot program in Minneapolis and Eden Prairie has shown that those customers are unwilling to shift their energy usage to cheaper times of usage, despite the increase in costs.

Deepinder is excited by the opportunities for broad system efficiency that building intelligence holds. With smart buildings, grid managers will have more opportunities to match the electric load to the grid, which can improve the grid’s overall efficiency and decrease costs for consumers. Utilities are currently able to do that to some extent; panelists discussed Great River Energy’s successful water heater program, wherein the utility controls water heaters in individual homes and businesses and can turn them on or off as the grid requires. Deepinder thinks that smart buildings could provide that same level of control to grid managers but at a wider scale. And the inclusion of electric vehicles and other forms of energy storage, such as batteries or chillers, would even further enhance the flexibility and stability of our grid.

Crowd at 75F event

A barrier to adoption: financing

Financing for these projects can be a barrier, but there are many good options in Minnesota. Center for Energy and Environment, local credit unions and banks all provide loans through traditional financing mechanisms. On the non-traditional side, SPPA has both their Trillion BTU program and MinnPACE, for which they use their own funds and also leverage national partners. The panelists discussed how valuable Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing can be for clean energy improvements on commercial buildings that are tenant-occupied. With traditional financing, there is often a split incentive with clean energy improvements – the building owner does not pay for the electricity usage, and the tenant does not own the building and so cannot finance the improvement. PACE can keep both the benefits of the improvements (lower electricity costs) and the costs (financing through increased property taxes) with the tenant.

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