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Roundtable discussion

Building industry needs education on energy efficiency, experts say

As the number of buildings attaining LEED status in San Diego continues to rise, the definition of energy efficiency and the technologies that make for it continue to evolve.

At a recent Daily Transcript roundtable discussion sponsored by SPADA Innovations and the California Center for Sustainable Energy, representatives from some of San Diego’s energy-related businesses, and groups converged to discuss the technologies some of them employ and the hopes they have for the industry’s future.

Among the innovators in the room was Jose Torre-Bueno, vice president of research and development at energy efficiency contractor Empowered Energy Solutions.

Torre-Bueno is working to develop an analytic method that would determine the most financially desirable improvements to a building, by using a list of all the plausible improvements that could be done to it.

“We’ve demonstrated that we can consistently come up with proposals that are more cost effective than single-solution options,” Torre-Bueno said.

Though still in development, the company’s method of analysis is nearing the roll-out stage, he added.

A building’s energy efficiency is often described by professionals in sustainable building industries to be just as important, if not more important than, finding ways to create renewable energy. Torre-Bueno said that depends, as there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach.

“It’s answered by analysis,” Torre-Bueno said. “We have a method of concerting anything you might choose to do into the effective cost. It will depend on the current cost of solar, the age of existing things in the building, how efficient they already are, versus how efficient something that you could replace them with is.”

Sometimes, the analysis shows that certain things aren’t worth replacing.

Adding solar panels, for instance, winds up being a less expensive alternative.

Even the site of a building could make a difference in the decision, he added.

Ted Reguly, director of customer programs and assistance at San Diego Gas & Electric, said the first step should be finding ways to make the building less “leaky.”

“If you have a highly efficient building, then you won’t do any energy efficiency stuff, but the first place to look is to make sure the building envelope is as energy efficient as possible,” Reguly said, adding that only then should additions be considered.

In January, SDG&E launched its “Green Button” program, which is an online tool SDG&E customers can use to track their energy usage data.

With a slightly different take on a similar point, SPADA Innovations President Joe Vilella said efficiency should be viewed as more than just a number indicating use.

“It’s not as much about using less as it is about being smart about what you put into the building,” Vilella said.

Citing variable refrigerant volume air conditioning systems used in Europe as an example, Vilella said technology is reaching a point where certain energy-efficient equipment actually costs about the same as standard equipment.

“It’s just not known enough to be adopted, but it should be adopted, because it’s a critical thing,” Vilella said.

Jack Clark, senior manager at the California Center for Sustainable Energy, said it’s important to understand that the yearly evolution of energy efficiency technologies is in some ways underutilized, even as codes and standards continue to implement more efficient building practices.

“We’re moving the private market to realize the opportunities that are there in existing buildings now, and once we shed the light on that opportunity, not only will we see environmental benefits, work force benefits, health and safety benefits, but economic benefits,” Clark said.

As president and founder of Energy Integrity, an energy assessment and upgrade company, Spencer Rosen said the energy efficiency industry just needs to find a way to relay to potential customers the excitement that comes with its benefits.

Saving money is an obvious benefit, he said, and that’s often not difficult to get excited about.

To Rosen, there’s more to it. Creating a comfortable home that also saves money is one of the goals Energy Integrity goes into each job with. And as exciting as money can be as a motivator, so can comfort, Rosen said.

“No amount of solar panels is actually going to make a home more comfortable,” Rosen said.

But improving indoor air quality -- by making sure the shell of a building is efficient and not allowing a building’s air to come from static areas, like crawl spaces and attics -- can increase comfort, as can a variety of other improvements, Rosen said.

“There’s a real benefit to people’s health and well-being to really looking at the building from a sustainability, from a building performance, perspective,” Rosen added.

Holly Garrett founded her company, Clean Energy Principles, for the sole purpose of getting the word out — from a business perspective.

Her clients range from the businesses performing energy efficiency audits to anyone that sees a benefit in learning the economic and business-related benefits of clean technology.

“Every single day, I try to convince people that they need to know this stuff,” Garrett said.

Pulling people away from their daily routines to work for a few hours with her company’s instructors can sometimes be a challenge, she said.

"They don’t have to know it," Garrett said. "But at the same time, attorneys and CPAs and all these people are dealing with tax credits, they’re dealing with clients, negotiating mergers and all this stuff."

The state appears to be catching on to the importance of determining efficiency of proposed upgrades using funds from various incentive programs, said Jeff Cox, an account executive at fuel cell developer UTC Power.

Changes made within the last year by the California Public Utilities Commission to the "loading order" now require a complete energy efficiency audit of a host building, before public money is awarded, through incentives for distributed generation projects.

No such prerequisite was in place when incentives like the California Solar Initiative was established a decade ago.

“It’s a recognition from the regulators that you’re on the right track here,” Cox said.

But Torre-Bueno still sees room for improvement with the state’s loading order, and said it’s sometimes problematic in certain situations for his clients.

“In coastal San Diego, it’s really hard to justify upgrades to the envelope of a building, because the actual air conditioning load is so small,” Torre-Bueno said.

The loading order sometimes leads someone to do additional work that’s not very cost effective just to meet the standard, he added.

“You wind up, in order to capture certain incentives, having to add insulation to a building where an economic analysis would say it would take 250 years for that to pay off,” Torre-Bueno said.

Roundtable Participants

Tom Blair, Energy Administrator, City of San Diego

Jack Clark, Senior Building Retrofit Program Manager,



California Center for Sustainable Energy (sponsor)

Jeff Cox, Account Executive, UTC Power

Holli Garrett, Founder & CEO, Clean Energy Principles

Ted Reguly, Director of Customer Programs and Assistance,



San Diego Gas & Electric

Spencer Rosen, President & Founder, Energy Integrity

Jose Torre-Bueno, Vice President of Research & Development, Empowered Energy Solutions

Joe Vilella, President & CEO, SPADA Innovations (sponsor)

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