New Year, New Projects: Reach Beyond the Low Hanging Fruit

An old business adage asks why go for the low hanging fruit when there’s a whole tree for the picking? In energy efficiency, this concept can go a long way in saving resources and money. Look up. One of the most obvious upgrades a building owner can make in efficiency is lighting. Often a good place to start, this may have the quickest return on investment—but don’t stop there. To initiate a plan that will really make a difference in the long term, you need to reach higher.

The truth is, the highest return on investment projects may achieve only a small percentage of the carbon footprint reductions on the table. In a recent article for Greentech Media, building science expert Nate Adams reported last year that expecting big results from small projects in energy efficiency isn’t realistic.

One Alabama commercial business that has studied what it really means to reach higher for energy efficiency and savings is ADTRAN in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park West. Known for developing and manufacturing digital telecommunications devices, in 2010 the campus received two chiller adaptive frequency drives, a chiller economizer, upgrades to building control systems and light fixture retrofits. The business was awarded the City of Huntsville’s Air Pollution Control Achievement Award the following year.

Life Data Labs is another example of an Alabama business reaching beyond lighting upgrades to pursue long-term sustainability. A family-owned company in Cherokee, Ala., Life Data Labs manufactures and packages animal nutrition and healthcare products under one roof, feeding approximately 40,000 horses per day worldwide. Founder Dr. Frank Gravlee began transitioning the facility toward greater energy efficiency in 2015 with LED lighting. Since then, he has continued to watch for opportunities to remain competitive. “As technology advances, we constantly upgrade to more efficient computer servers, motor controllers, motors, compressors and robotics,” he says. “We utilize meters to monitor the efficiency of our equipment and their energy usage. This data allows us to update our processes and equipment accordingly.” With a firm belief that renewable energy protects the environment and improves operations, today Dr. Gravlee is looking to utilize solar power to potentially supply 100 percent of Life Data Labs’ office and manufacturing energy requirements. “The proposed design utilizes solar panels generating an average of 300 KW per day. When implemented, this solar plant will replace the 500,000 KW that we currently use per year with renewable energy,” he says. The project will break even in utility savings after 10 to 12 years, and the equipment has a guaranteed operational longevity of 25 years. He is currently reviewing bids from three companies in the southeast to begin installation.

If you want to join ADTRAN and Life Data Labs in looking beyond the low-hanging fruit, what’s next? Sometimes it takes a professional energy engineer to collect the data that will show you where your next investment in retrofits or upgrades should go. Here’s how it works:

1. Getting the data. Plans for deep savings retrofits require the collection of both short and long-term data. Energy engineers can come alongside you with a plan to create an energy usage data portfolio for setting long-term goals. Energy engineers can assist with energy information management tools used to collect and process your current energy output and translate its potential. Smart grids, smart meters, analytic software and utility bill reviews can be used to develop a plan that can be applied to other areas of the business and reap big savings over time. This data can be overwhelming to sort through on your own, but with a professional consulting company by your side, the data can start to make sense.

2. Finding savings unique to your building with a benchmark. An energy efficiency benchmark will give you details about your specific space so you can set realistic goals for progress in the future. It is important to know how your building measures up to competitors and what best practices you can implement this year. Benchmarking can reveal the higher fruit opportunities you don’t want to leave to spoil on the tree.

3. Budgeting to earn existing rebates for the New Year. Chasing rebates as your only goal for energy upgrades is inefficient, but rebate opportunities that will expire this year are certainly worth writing into the budget. Commercial businesses, for example, receive a 30 percent tax credit of total retrofit expenses—including installation and labor for solar panel systems, fuel cells and solar thermal systems—through the end of 2016.

4. Avoiding obsolescence by keeping up with technology or considering alternative forms of energy. A consulting firm can help you stay on top of new technology like automation systems and renewables. Your software may have been loaded by floppy disk decades ago, with systems no longer supported or owner’s manuals long gone. Energy analysis software can project which cost-saving upgrades will make the most sense for your space. High hanging fruit upgrades may include solar power, chiller/boiler optimization, equipment upgrades, controls system upgrades and retro commissioning. You might be surprised how a few tech upgrades can impact your savings in the long run.

It’s a new year with new opportunities for investing in the future of the planet and your vision for sustainability and utility savings. A farmer doesn’t just pick the apples at the bottom of the tree. He is going to reap all the benefits the tree has to offer. To initiate a plan that really makes a difference over time—both in your bottom line and in the environment—it takes a team.

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