November 6, 2008

How energy rebates can put more green in your pocket

  • Utilities are now seeking proactive team involvement in a building’s system selection process.


    Building green in the Northwest is getting a little easier on your wallet.

    Some incentives for green buildings already existed, but utilities are putting more emphasis — in the form of financial incentives — on encouraging projects to use high-efficiency and environmentally friendly systems.

    In August, Seattle City Light and Mayor Greg Nickels announced an ambitious new conservation plan to offer more efficiency options and incentives, effectively doubling the money available for conservation programs over the next five years. Simultaneously, Puget Sound Energy revamped its incentive program to be more aggressive and straightforward. Not to be outdone, Seattle Public Utilities began offering incentives for systems that not only reduce water bills, but contribute to energy savings.

    Thanks to the renewed push to encourage building efficiency, owners may be eligible for hundreds of thousands of incentive dollars on their projects. However, to be eligible for the widest range of opportunities requires a fresh approach to the incentive process.

    The traditional (and less effective) rebate process occurs after system and equipment decisions have been made. Now, the utilities are seeking proactive and upfront involvement in a building’s system selection processes. In exchange for maximum funding, the utilities give input to the design process so they can encourage efficient whole-building design, such as better insulation and windows, building control systems and efficient mechanical systems.

    Photo by Rushing
    Seattle City Light and Puget Sound Energy were part of the Fairview Research Facility’s integrated design team, which helped achieve maximum energy efficiency of the complex engineered systems.

    There are still opportunities for incentives later in the process, but as the ability to make significant changes to a project decreases, so do the available incentives.

    Integrating design, cost

    Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities and Puget Sound Energy want to be at the table from day one to maximize the efficacy of their dollars. This is where it pays to have a well organized and integrated design team made up of owners, architects, engineers, facility managers and anyone else involved with the design, construction or operation of a building. The new paradigm includes the utility company as part of this team.

    Integrated design team members must communicate effectively and coordinate design impacts with everybody else on the team. Any team member, including the utility, may identify a promising opportunity. The team agrees on the scope of the proposed measures, and then studies and/or calculations are performed to verify the expected energy savings, cost and payback. After that, the utility informs the team how much it is willing to incentivize the project to include the studied items.

    Before the final decision on whether to implement a specific strategy for rebate can be made, the design team has to analyze the initial capital cost versus the long-term operating cost of the building, including energy usage and incentives received. The goal is to enable the owner to make informed decisions knowing how all the puzzle pieces fit together.

    The intent of incentive programs is to benefit program participants, the utility, and the community as a whole by supporting projects that reduce demand on electricity, natural gas and/or water systems.

    Incentives and funding

    Incentive types include:

    Rendering courtesy of NBBJ
    Building/energy modeling is being performed for Blume Co.’s new Yale Campus development to assist the owner in attaining utility rebates.

    • Standard incentives. For some standard equipment and appliances, the utilities have created templates that require minimal input and indicate the amount of incentive dollars that are available for a single element of a project.

    • Custom incentives. The most aggressive form of incentives requires calculations or building modeling to simulate how all of the systems in a project work together to save energy. In many cases the utility will cover the cost of energy analysis.

    Incentive funding is limited by the utility’s annual budget and is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Funding is assured only after your application has been submitted and approved, and a project implementation agreement has been signed. Payment is made upon completion of a project and after verification by an energy services representative.

    Energy-efficient measures

    Energy-efficient measures may be installed in either new construction or in retrofits. Examples of eligible measures include:

    • High-efficiency boilers

    • High-efficiency HVAC equipment

    • Thermal envelope improvements

    • Water-conserving fixtures and equipment

    • High-efficiency elevators

    • Demand-controlled ventilation

    • Automated exterior shading devices

    • Operable windows with control system interlocks

    • Lighting controls and lighting levels (including parking garages)

    Other incentive programs

    In addition to local utility incentive programs, there are federal and state programs that reward energy efficiency, renewable energy production and water conservation. Also on the horizon are new funding opportunities as future incentive programs will likely emphasize new goals, such as lowering your carbon footprint and reducing the maximum electricity draw of a building.

    Maximizing incentive dollars for a project requires early involvement of both the incentive agency and the integrated design team. The rewards can be significant. Additional benefit for a project owner is gained by having a more cohesive and focused design team.

    The ultimate results of pursuing incentives might not just be the dollars in the pocket, but a smoother design process and a better building in the ground.

    Nathan Miller is a senior energy analyst and mechanical engineer at Rushing, a Seattle-based mechanical/electrical engineering and sustainability-consulting firm.

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