The Electrical Worker online
February 2013

Nation's First 'Zero Net Energy' Training Center
Under Construction
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San Leandro, Calif. — Local 595 is building a new training center, but first it had to build a renewable energy power plant.

Windmills and solar panels surrounding the building produce as much energy as the building will consume. It will be one of only a handful of U.S. Department of Energy-designated 'zero net energy buildings' in the country and one of the first achieved by retrofitting an existing commercial building.

California has enacted stringent energy conservation requirements and renewable energy policies that call for zero net energy commercial buildings by 2030. The new IBEW-NECA training facility — dubbed the Zero Net Energy Center — will showcase the training of technologies that promote energy conservation, as well as renewable energy generation, that will help the state reach its goal.

The new 46,000-square-foot training facility has quickly become a high-profile project for Local 595 and NECA, garnering extensive coverage in California media.

"We wanted to build a new facility that showed more than the skills and knowledge of our IBEW members," said Dublin, Calif., Local 595 Business Manager Victor Uno. "We wanted to demonstrate our commitment to energy conservation and sustainability. We are helping to move California's energy policies forward."

No Smokestacks

On Oct. 16, 300 people gathered beneath the helical wind turbines spinning like porcelain-white DNA strands and into the shade of a forest of ground level solar PV panels, their supports rising like tree trunks. State and local politicians, union activists, utility executives and environmentalists came to see the renewable energy systems officially connected to the power grid.

Zero net energy buildings are self-sufficient over a year, but on some days — cloudy, windless and cold with classrooms full of students, for example — they will pull power from the grid. On bright, sunny, breezy days, particularly when the building is empty, they send power back out.

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, America's 120 million buildings consume 42 percent of the nation's primary energy, more than manufacturing or transportation. California's publicly owned utilities, committed by law to reducing total energy consumption, have targeted new commercial buildings for most of the reductions. By 2030, the state goal for zero net energy extends to every new commercial building. Uno sees this as a great opportunity for skilled IBEW electricians.

"We love to build large power systems. Our ZNE Center takes a different tack — energy conservation technologies are used to conserve power, so we are building a smaller power generating system. These technologies are IBEW work," Uno said. "Energy conservation and renewable power systems promote California policy and show the way forward."

Powering Down

When the wind is howling and the sun is blazing, the windmills and solar panels can produce 139 kilowatts AC of power. Building designers chose this number because it is 10 percent higher than the building would need with every classroom full, every computer fired up and every office in use. If energy conservation measures were not taken, a commercial building of the same size and type would have required a 550 kilowatts AC to meet zero net goals.

"This isn't about powering up. We powered down," Uno said. "The dramatic story of our ZNE Center is the tremendous energy conservation measures utilized to lower energy use by 75 percent."

Byron Benton, the training director for the Local 595/NECA apprenticeship program, is overseeing construction. He credits the advanced building automation systems that control lighting and ventilation for the tremendous energy reductions.

Lighting makes up about 40 percent of an average building's energy use. In the new ZNE training center, every office and classroom has windows that flood the space with a bright but even light. Ambient-light sensors in the room turn on LED light fixtures if more light is needed and shades on the skylights and side windows can be controlled manually or automatically to darken the room.

The second biggest energy drain for commercial buildings is getting fresh air to each room at a comfortable temperature. The center uses multiple systems, most of them automated, to do the job as efficiently as possible.

There are automated windows on either side of the skylights that vent hot air, drawing in cool air from ground-level awning windows that are also automated.

"The windows, which are tied into the building automation system, will automatically open and shut as needed in conjunction with the variable refrigerant flow (VRF) heating and cooling system," Benton said. Instead of piping heated air from a furnace to vents throughout the building, the VRF system uses liquid and gas refrigerant to cool and heat the building. An energy savings component of this design is the ability to remove heat from one space and redistribute it to another location where heat is needed.

"In liquid form, refrigerant takes heat out of the surrounding area," Benton said. "Then you can take that gas in the system and redistribute to a part of the building that might need heating. So we aren't just independently heating a cold area; when possible, we are redistributing heat that is already in the building to where we want it."

Uno said that a simple principle informed the many complicated decisions they had to make: "If there aren't any people or computers, we want everything off. Regardless of how efficiently the energy is generated, we don't want to use the energy if the space is empty."

This is IBEW Work

The Bay Area may be a nearly ideal place to build such a facility. The sunny, temperate climate and predictable breezes bring out the best in many of these technologies and Silicon Valley's culture of technology, optimism and green living mean there is customer base ready for them. Yet even here adoption of some of these technologies has been slow.

"Most commercial buildings — even here — don't allow open windows. They are sealed," Benton said. "What do they do? They manage a closed and sealed building. Recent studies show that buildings with natural ventilation are healthier. This factor along with increased energy levels, with the presence of natural light, equates to increased academic and work performance."

Uno says Local 595 is sending a message to Bay Area businesses that IBEW electricians are part of the region's embrace of next generation building technologies, and he insists it is a message that any local can use.

"We do automation and lighting control. We do renewable energy generating. The building management systems are all about automation. This is all IBEW work," Uno said.

The key, says Benton, is training. Correctly installing and then integrating these systems can only be done by highly skilled electricians with the right training. Incorrectly installed wind turbines and solar panels fail sooner and produce less power. Incorrectly installed building automation systems might not work at all.

"It's not enough to read it in books or write it on white boards," Benton said. "Right now, 40 percent of our total training hours are for the journey level. We take seriously our commitment to continuing education. We do many quality upgrade classes: building automation, lighting control, on-site power generation. We say it's training for sustainable careers."

A Destination for the Entire Industry

With the power generation component of the building commissioned and sending power back to the grid, Uno expects classroom and office construction to be completed this early spring.

"Local 595 is helping to lead the way forward," Uno said. "Our ZNE Center shows our commitment to future generations of highly trained and skilled IBEW electrical workers."


Three helical windmills in front of Dublin, Calif., Local 595's Zero Net Energy Training Center in San Leandro


Red Top Electric owner Michael Curran, center, holds resolution by Sen. Ellen Corbett, second from right, recognizing the company's successful efforts installing the solar PV and other renewable systems at Local 595's new training center. From left are Don Campbell, NECA; Tom Curran, Contractor's Trust; Michael Curran; Corbett and Business Manager Victor Uno.