As Featured in R&D Magazine's R&D/Lab Design 2008 Handbook


Onsite Renewable Energy Technologies for Laboratories and Other High-Technology Facilities

Phil Wirdzek, International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories


Every day nations, states, and cities around the world are taking a variety of steps to address the environmental concerns raised by global climate change. Through organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council, Australia's Green-Star, EPA's Green Power Partnership, and the World Resources Institute, the building industry around the world is embracing the purchase or installation of onsite systems that generate renewable energy. The Labs21 community must consider its role in this effort as well, developing and encouraging rational and economically viable renewable energy strategies for laboratories and other high-technology facilities.

In recent years, building components and design strategies have become available that integrate renewable electric generation systems as part of their function and benefit to buildings. Some examples of these systems are wind turbines, integrated photovoltaic roofing membranes, and solar electric glazing.  Ventilation and power generation is also possible through building design that channel air currents or exterior horns, which capture prevailing winds.  Applications of these strategies and systems are finding some limited acceptance in commercial and residential buildings. However, laboratories and high-performance facilities are likely to lag in adopting these techniques due to their already high capitol costs, their expected high energy requirements, and the changing mission of their owners and users.

Solar Integrated Roofing Membrane at Hawthorn 
        Manufacturing in California

Solar Integrated Roofing Membrane at Hawthorn Manufacturing in California

Unfortunately, space utilization and interior layout strategies, especially with regard to ventilation and special use spaces, often limit the placement of buildings or dictate the location of exterior equipment, both of which prevent future opportunities for capturing free and renewable forms of energy. The familiar forest of roof-top exhaust systems assure these solar-rich areas of a building will not provide any opportunity for future power production. Likewise, cooling towers, air handlers, and package cooling systems are frequently installed with little consideration to the free, natural energy that may be available around or near a facility. 

Given a future that may require alternative options to conventional energy generation and delivery, designers and architects must be sensitive to the non-conventional forms of energy surrounding these unique, high-energy buildings. Designers and engineers should begin to plan for the flexibility that will allow for capture and use of this energy throughout the expected long life of these facilities. This means that, like any other requirement to be considered during the building's programming, the potential for incorporating onsite renewable energy technologies must be addressed at the building level as well as the campus planning level. Roofs, windows and glazing, building orientation, and many other facets of the structure, design, and engineering can become valuable life-cycle assets for this purpose.

In an attempt to help promote the use of renewable energy technologies, many U.S. states have adopted renewable energy portfolio standards, creating renewable energy tradable credits and using utility benefit charges to establish financing assistance rebates, which enable the use of renewable energy systems. U.S. Congress recently considered a Federal Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard and the House continues to evaluate a carbon neutral requirement for federal buildings, including their laboratories. In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress extended the federal tax credits and accelerated depreciation for renewable energy system which can reduce the overall cost of these capitol investments by nearly 60 percent after five years. With state rebates and tradable credits, projects that have typically had a 50 year simple payback are now well under 10 years, with some under five.

The full paper on this topic will attempt to explore these opportunities, evaluate some of the supporting economic realities available in the market, and suggest how aggressive energy efficiency measures can ensure the value of incorporating renewable energy strategies into these unique facilities. Finally, the paper will also discuss how onsite renewable energy can help laboratories become carbon neutral and why that should become a Labs21 goal.