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See the cutting-edge tech turning government buildings into lean, green machines

The federal government has 300,000 buildings, and they’re massive energy hogs. New tech being piloted could slash their carbon footprint.

See the cutting-edge tech turning government buildings into lean, green machines
[Photo: yewkeo/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

The federal government has a long slog ahead, and it has nothing to do with politics.

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The Biden administration has set a series of ambitious energy and carbon emissions goals, including using energy that is 100% free of greenhouse gas pollution by 2030, purchasing only non-gas-powered vehicles by 2035, and producing net zero carbon emissions from federal buildings by 2045. With a portfolio of more than 300,000 buildings and a fleet of 600,000 cars and trucks, meeting these goals will require a lot of new technology—and soon.

The U.S. General Services Administration is on the hunt for that zero-emission, energy-saving technology, and has just announced the latest batch of novel tools and building materials that may help the government meet its goals. Through its Green Proving Ground program, the GSA is using some of the buildings in its portfolio to evaluate these technologies, utilizing real-world conditions to test, and hopefully prove, their ability to drastically cut the environmental impact of the federal government.

Six technologies have been selected for implementation in federal buildings. From a transparent film that boosts the thermal efficiency of windows to a tracking system that allows photovoltaic panels to follow the sun to a heat pump that uses captured CO2, the new technologies represent the kind of innovative improvements that could be scaled up to cover the hundreds of thousands of buildings under the government’s purview, and maybe beyond.

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Launched in 2015, the GPG program has evaluated dozens of technologies in federal buildings, including water-saving devices, more efficient heating and air-conditioning units, and advanced lighting control systems. By testing these technologies in a few buildings and then rolling them out to now more than 500 buildings, GSA estimates that the GPG program has saved $16 million a year in energy costs.

With the Biden administration’s energy and emissions targets, which were set in 2021, the need for new building technology and equipment is becoming even more pressing.

“We need to be operating facilities differently for the future,” says Kevin Powell, director of emerging building technologies for the GSA’s Public Buildings Service. He says the six technologies selected for this year’s program have the potential to accelerate the energy transition that’s underway within the federal government.

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One is a new bidirectional electric vehicle charging system that enables EVs in the federal fleet to pull from the grid while pushing energy back into buildings during peak loads. They essentially serve as mobile batteries that can provide energy to buildings when buying it from the grid has a high cost or a high carbon impact. Developed by Virginia-based Fermata Energy, this technology has already been adopted by some small electric utilities.

Another technology selected for testing is a simple film that can be placed on old single-pane windows to make them better able to reduce heat transmission during the summer months and cold penetration in the winter. Developed by materials science giant 3M and window film company NGS, the material builds on a product that has been shown to reduce energy costs by 25%. Powell says reducing the energy wasted on inefficient windows and other elements of the building’s exterior, or envelope, is one of the biggest opportunities for improving federal buildings.

Heat pumps are another emerging technology being embraced by the GPG program. Because they capture and reuse thermal energy, heat pumps are far more efficient at heating and cooling buildings than traditional systems, and are increasingly being used in residential buildings. The heat pump selected for the program, developed by California-based Dalrada Corp., uses CO2 as its refrigerant—a technology that was previously available only at an industrial scale. It can generate temperatures between minus 22 degrees and 250 degrees Fahrenheit, using much less energy than conventional systems.

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“If it does deliver on all of its promises, this is a game changer,” Powell says.

Buildings owned and operated by the federal government are a unique space to test out novel technologies. Rather than whiz-bang new buildings where energy efficiency is becoming status quo, many of the buildings operated by the government are old and inherently inefficient by modern standards.

“One-third of the buildings in the federal portfolio are registered historic structures,” Powell says. “Buildings last a long time. And when you think about that, there’s a tremendous incentive to make sure they’re operating efficiently for our tenants.”

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Part of the point of the Green Proving Ground program is for these new technologies, and the U.S.-based companies that developed them, to scale up. Powell says those that prove themselves have the potential to meet the federal government’s energy goals, and also to help other buildings outside the government’s purview to reduce their own environmental impact. If these energy-saving technologies can work in federal offices and historic buildings, they can work anywhere.

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