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At NREL, Sustainability Goes Beyond Campus

June 14, 2013

Photo of a group of people standing in the entry to a multi-level parking structure. The NREL campus is visible in the background. Enlarge image

Participants at the NREL Parking Garage Workshop tour NREL's new energy-efficient parking structure, which is expected to perform 90% better than a standard garage built just to code.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

The Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) relies on a team of sustainability experts to make sure the lab "walks the talk."

From its ultra energy-efficient buildings to its campus-wide infrastructure, NREL has built a state-of-the-art "laboratory of the future" to facilitate innovative research, development, and commercialization of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

NREL's sustainability program, Sustainable NREL, underscores the lab's success in leading the nation toward a clean energy future by engaging employees in a "living laboratory" that minimizes NREL's use of resources, including energy, materials, and water, while receiving the maximum value from resources used.

"We apply what we learn to our facilities, and then we monitor, validate, and process the information not only from a building level, but a campus level as well," said Sustainable NREL Director Frank Rukavina.

Sustainable NREL drives many of the day-to-day operations on the NREL site. The team helps integrate energy, water, and material resource conservation and efficiency applications at the lab. They also generate short-term and long-term planning measures for NREL's "Campus of the Future" while overseeing data collection and analysis of performance metrics for federal reporting. Now the team is looking for ways to share that knowledge beyond the NREL campus.

"We are always looking for ways to educate people on what Sustainable NREL is and what we do," Rukavina said.

Photo of three men standing in the basement of a home. Enlarge image

(left to right) NREL's Jesse Dean, Wally Piccone from the City of Lakewood, and NREL's Frank Rukavina assess the utility room at the City of Lakewood's Graham House. NREL is coordinating a joint effort with the City of Lakewood and Red Rocks Community College to audit the Graham House and make suggestions for sustainable and energy-efficient modifications. The property was donated to the City and is used for public meetings and events.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

In addition, Rukavina said Sustainable NREL has a longstanding goal to foster social and environmental responsibility and implement initiatives that will showcase the laboratory as a global model for sustainability.

"We help with efforts to use NREL as a leading example for sustainable buildings and campus design," Rukavina said. "We don't just support and report; our focus is to export what we learn to other groups."

Over the last few years, Sustainable NREL has been ramping up its efforts to be visible in the community and help showcase the renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies developed at NREL. Those efforts have been rewarded with a number of key awards from the White House and the Energy Department.

"While many of the lab's researchers are hard at work developing the next breakthrough technology that will have a lasting impact on the energy landscape, we are following that model as well," Rukavina said. "NREL is taking lessons learned and sharing them through reports like the NREL Biennial Sustainability Report and community projects like the Graham House and the NREL Parking Garage Workshop."

Making the Graham House a Model of Energy Efficiency

Photo of a man directing a light beam and heat sampling tool at the camera. Enlarge image

Red Rocks Community College teacher Shawn LeMons samples heat loss at the Graham House. Students from Red Rocks Community College are helping NREL and the City of Lakewood with energy audits related to the property.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

Built in the 1948, the Graham House is a Frank-Lloyd-Wright-style home perched on a bluff in the Denver suburb of Lakewood. The 7-acre property has sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains, and it's an ideal gathering place for small community meetings. That was the intent of owner Jean Graham when she donated the property to the city in 1997.

Now a park property that's part of Lakewood's Community Resources Department, the mid-century-era home is in need of an energy-efficiency makeover. In fact, the city hopes the makeover will benefit the community in two ways: with energy savings and as an educational showcase.

"We hope the Graham House will be a model project with energy-efficient systems that will help educate visitors on ways to save energy," said Lakewood Director of Community Resources Kit Botkins.

With assistance from Sustainable NREL and Lakewood's Red Rocks Community College, energy audits were completed for the Graham House earlier this spring.

"It is an older home so there are lots of ways we can improve its efficiency, including simple things like lighting and heating," Botkins said. "These are improvements that other homeowners would be interested in making—and we also believe the enhancements will increase the facility's use by the city, as well as residents."

Although the city is still looking for funding for recommended improvements, the students at Red Rocks Community College have already benefited from the joint project.

"Working with the students at Red Rocks on the initial energy audit was intentional on the part of the city," Botkins said. "We thought it would be cool to have students who are learning to do this, actually learn the process on an example in the field that they could be involved in from beginning to end."

It's More Than a Parking Garage

Photo of a man speaking to a group of people standing outside of a parking garage.  Photovoltaic panels are seen on the side of the garage in the background. Enlarge image

NREL's Shanti Pless leads a tour of NREL's energy-efficient parking garage. He also spoke to community planners about garage performance and design versus actual energy use during NREL's Parking Garage Workshop.
Credit: Dennis Schroeder

NREL's parking structure may look like your average parking garage. But "everything that we do at NREL has multiple purposes," Rukavina said. "For instance, the parking garage—its purpose is for staff to park cars, but at NREL, it's another laboratory for grid integration, electric vehicles, and sustainable building design."

While it may not be glamorous, a parking garage typically uses 15% of the energy used by the building that it is designed to support. Making NREL's garage an attractive structure that's both affordable and high performing presented a unique combination of challenges. In the end, the design team came up with a structure that is expected to perform 90% better than a standard garage built just to code.

In March, NREL and the Energy Department hosted the NREL Parking Garage Workshop to share the message of parking sustainability with planning managers, construction managers, and other stakeholders. Attendees included representatives from the Regional Transportation District and Colorado Department of Transportation, local businesses, government agencies, and universities—many of which are planning to build parking structures in the near future. The goal was to communicate NREL's building process and help others understand opportunities for replication while raising the energy performance of parking structures.

Linda Kogan, sustainability director for the University of Colorado's Colorado Springs campus, was one of the workshop attendees. "The workshop was incredibly valuable with very specific strategies that we are already pursuing to reduce energy consumption, including planning for electric vehicle charging stations. We will follow up on recommendations specific to energy-efficient parking garages such as occupancy and daylighting sensors, daylighting design, LED lights, and photovoltaic panels."

"We feel that working with the community through these different agencies is a natural extension of our mission," Rukavina said. "We're planning to have an impact in the years and decades to come."

Learn more about Sustainable NREL or view Sustainable NREL's Biennial Report.

—Heather Lammers