How to Keep COVID-19 from Derailing Building Efficiency Efforts | Alliance to Save Energy
10/23/20 : Clay Nesler

How to Keep COVID-19 from Derailing Building Efficiency Efforts

Empty city streets.

This blog was originally posted by Alliance Associate Johnson Controls

The coronavirus pandemic has caused severe health and safety issues around the globe. It is also impacting energy efficiency in buildings in both predictable and unpredictable ways.

A recent Johnson Controls Energy Efficiency Indicator Covid-19 pulse survey of 150 commercial, institutional and industrial facility executives in the U.S. this September identified unique challenges that organizations are facing in the pursuit of operating healthy and efficient buildings.

One of the top challenges: although many commercial buildings remain empty, there is still a significant amount of energy usage.

While it is no surprise that energy use on residential buildings has increased, it is a surprise that energy use in commercial buildings hasn’t dropped more considering the low occupancy rates. According to the survey:

  • Less than 10 percent of organizations have experienced an energy use reduction of greater than 20 percent, despite significantly reduced building occupancy.
  • About a third reduced energy use between 10 and 20 percent and another third less than 10 percent.

In other research, buildings in the GRESB commercial real estate database, which would tend to include more sustainable properties, achieved an average energy reduction of 40 percent. The highest performing buildings, such as net zero buildings, can throttle down energy use even more through more sophisticated sensing and controls at an individual zone level, reducing HVAC, lighting, and electrical plug-loads. These are the same types of controls that can quickly and automatically respond to emergency situations.

What isn’t a surprise is that following CDC and ASHRAE re-opening guidance regarding HVAC system modification and operation has the potential to significantly increase energy use depending on building type, equipment condition and location. More than two-thirds of surveyed organizations have already, or have plans to, increase outdoor air ventilation, improve air filtration and install air treatment systems in their buildings. These improvements could increase energy use by 30-40 percent or more in some situations.

The energy use challenges could also get worse when commercial buildings become increasingly, but not fully, occupied due to social distancing practices and flexible work arrangements planned by over 80 percent of surveyed organizations. Even with lower than average occupancy, employees alternating work schedules from home and office will likely result in higher energy use than normal in both locations, increasing overall energy consumption and utility bills.

Understandably, survey respondents cited occupant health and safety as a top priority:

  • 63 percent of facility executives said protecting the health and safety of building occupants during the coronavirus pandemic was extremely or very important as a driver of investment
  • 81 percent said that increasing the flexibility of facilities to quickly respond to a variety of emergency conditions (e.g., pandemic, natural disaster, wildfires) was extremely or very important as a driver of investment.

Installing air quality sensors, automated controls and other technologies are key to increasing the flexibility to respond to a variety of challenging operating conditions, including increased energy consumption and costs.

Putting occupant health and safety first doesn’t mean having to put energy efficiency last. With the right investments in technology, we can improve both building safety and efficiency at the same time while making our facilities more flexible to respond to whatever comes next.