Touring One of the World’s Most Energy-Efficient Buildings (Opinion)

National Renewable Energy Laboratory uses technology and materials to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

by / November 2, 2010

In early September, I had the opportunity to tour the federal government’s first net-zero building — meaning a building that can generate as much energy as it consumes. The building, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) Research Support Facility, recently opened its doors on NREL’s Golden, Colo., campus. Buildings, it turns out, are among the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions. In large cities, buildings easily surpass cars as the biggest polluters. NREL’s new facility was designed to show that with a combination of energy-first thinking and modern materials, buildings don’t need to be so environmentally detrimental.

What struck me most as I explored the facility was the fact that nothing used to create the building is beyond the reach of anyone looking to build or retrofit a structure. As I learned during my visit, the facility was built with energy as the top priority, not architecture. This is the converse of the norm — where a building is designed based on aesthetics, and energy efficiency is often an afterthought. Think of all the tract homes that have spread throughout every city and town. If builders gave more thought to a home’s position relative to the sun, and to how ground and rainwater flow through the yard, the amount of resources wasted on cooling and landscaping could be dramatically reduced.

Energy efficiency, to a large extent, is far less about technology than it is about thoughtfulness. With that in mind, about the time you read this there may be a large class of incoming state CIOs who will have a number of complicated technology projects and problems to deal with. Undoubtedly some will try to eke out a few more dollars from next year’s budget to procure still more technology to support the technology their predecessors deployed.

But I’d argue that maybe a thought process similar to that which built the Research Support Facility may help make these transitions easier. Maybe more technology isn’t the answer, but rather a thoughtful assessment of available resources might make continuing existing projects less dollar-intensive. To that point, Features Editor Andy Opsahl has delivered in this issue a compelling story about the ongoing dispute between agencies and vendors over maintenance fees. Like the NREL, many agencies are forced to choose between third-party assistance or locally sourced solutions. There are advantages and disadvantages to both strategies. But it certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea when building enterprise IT to think carefully about how technology is positioned relative to the external factors that will affect it.  


Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.