Electrification and Decarbonization of Research Facilities

John McDonald, SmithGroup
Katrina Kelly-Pitou, SmithGroup

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As the United States begins to deal with the impact of climate change and resiliency, cities across the country are mandating carbon-free energy sources for future developments. At the same time, the market drivers of cheaper renewables, including solar and battery storage, are causing a fundamental shift in technology choices, both in new construction, but most importantly, in retrofit design. Still, financing gaps often exist between business-as-usual and decarbonization goals, making the design of any energy systems increasingly complex. Nowhere is the complexity more challenging than within our public institutions--universities often have aging infrastructure, as do the large-scale campus research facilities that many national laboratories rest upon. However, these institutions often have the deepest capacity to unlock the talent, and designs, that operate within their doors; there exists a deep need to connect the dots between the brilliant innovations happening behind closed doors, and the ambitions of infrastructure design located below these pipes and wires.

In order to address these deep decarbonization goals, electrification of our research facilities will be a key component, pursued together with overall energy efficiency strategies. These aggressive goals challenge owners, operators, and design and construction teams for research facilities, where fossil fuels have traditionally been the primary heat source for building systems and has been utilized historically for various research equipment. So, how do we get there with current technologies, and how is the market responding to this challenge? Using systems-thinking, including utilizing the fundamental strategies of controls and optimization within district heating and microgrid solutions on-campus, can help connect the dots between national and local goals and operational excellence.

This presentation will review the fundamental market drivers for electrification, including current market incentives for electrifying facilities and grid-scale energy efficiency opportunities that are available to owners when pushing towards full-building electrification. Technologies and equipment that are currently on the market, and soon ready to be explored, will be reviewed. Case studies will provide details where this equipment has been utilized to meet deep decarbonization goals, with procurement challenges outlined and maintenance lessons learned discussed. Doing so will demonstrate how decarbonization leadership can be built through bottom-up coordination in the United States.

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the climate change pressures and impacts on owners, operators, design teams, and contractors;
  • Understand how climate change pressures and impacts on owners, operators, design teams, and contractors;
  • Understand the financial drivers and tools available to assist in the design and financing process to decarbonizing a design; and
  • Recognize the local and global benefits to decarbonizing research facilities.


John is a Mechanical Engineer and Principal with SmithGroup in the San Francisco office. John has focused for over 20 years on the design of laboratories and research facilities across the United States and internationally, with a specific focus on energy-efficient, water-efficient, and resilient designs that provide a positive research environment for the facilities and research staffs.

Katrina is an expert in energy systems and urban development. Currently, she acts as an Economist and Energy Systems Strategist at SmithGroup in Pittsburgh. She has focused her life's work on understanding the connections between resilience, decarbonization, and infrastructure development. As such, she has worked alongside policy-makers at the supranational, national, and local level to help create the policies that are needed to transition society to a zero-carbon future.


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