Caltech's Energy Retrofit: From Fuel Cells to a Daylighting Celeostat

caltech astrophysics building photo
Caltech's first LEED building, the Astrophysics Center, reduces water and energy by 30% and is 75% daylit. Photos by R. Cruger

On Caltech's campus, student engineers and scientists are busy in labs day and night working on hairy solar panels, termite guts biofuel and other innovations while sucking almost twice the energy the average building consumes. So the university created a Climate Action Plan and Energy Conservation Program to mitigate its multi-million dollar utility bill. It started with a $25,000 LED pilot project which successfully led to $8 million projects with big paybacks from one to 4-1/2 years as improvements roll out. Here are some highlights from a campus tour I took last week with the managers of Sustainability and Energy who oversee the impressive program.caltech energy program image
Caltech's Energy Manager describes low-hanging fruit, phase one of its Sustainable Program.

Kicking off the Sustainable Operations Summit, the tour was led by Matthew Berbee, Energy Manager, and John Onderdonk, manager of Sustainability Programs at Caltech, who showed off a few buildings already benefiting from the energy retrofits. In 2009 and '10, the university implemented a range of energy efficiencies that resulted in annual savings of 8.3 million kWh and $1.3 million in avoided utility costs. Another $1 million is expected in 2011 and '12, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 6,000 metric tons.

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Purring fuel cells supplement Caltech's cogeneration plant for its energy hogging campus.

Next to the LEED-certified Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics on the site of the campus's cogeneration plant stand 20 Bloom Energy oxide fuel cells providing clean, super-efficient - and quiet - electricity which Bloom manages. State-of-the-art high-tech is expected at Caltech but one simple solution involved replacing hundreds of old leaky valves with dramatic results, meeting energy savings of projected levels of 30% to 50%. The challenge was shutting down long enough to do the upgrade.

daylighting celeostat photo
Let there by light: mirrors and fiber optics bring natural light to basement laboratories.

Perhaps my favorite part of the tour was the repurposed celeostat which will bring daylighting to the Global Environmental Science. The building which aims for Platinum LEED status is a historical renovation. The solar telescope hasn't operated in decades so will be turned into an architectural feature, bringing sunlight into two basement levels through a system of fiber optics and reflective mirrors.

global environmental science building image
A repurposed celeostat solar telescope sheds light on the Environmental Science Building, appropriately.

The newest chemistry lab is a Gold LEED building, featuring vaulted fume hoods at each station that close after every use to reduce energy and increase air quality. It's 90% daylighted and surrounded by drought tolerant landscaping. They're be working on capturing the 200 million gallons of reclaimed water across campus.

Caltech faces the problems many institutions have of financing investments and retrofitting existing buildings, some built decades ago. Berbee and Onderdunk devised a way to payback the Energy Conservation Investment Program through the savings of avoided costs.

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One of several solar arrays on a parking structure roof at Caltech.

One of several solar arrays on campus on the roof of a large parking structure delivers 400 kilowatts. Though the impact is minimal, when the 20-year lease is up, Onderdonk said, "The hope is that one or our researchers will come up with the latest photovoltaics to replace the 1500 panels." Maybe the next generation of the hairy one described in Treehugger?

More than $30 million worth of conservation measures will be phased in with increasing complexity to minimize the impact on the environment and meet renewable energy standards required by California law. The implementation is described online as a model for others to replicate for substantial savings on energy utilities and GHGs emissions.

More on Caltech sustainability:
Fish-Inspired Wind Farms Are 10x More Powerful
Looking for Better Ethanol in Termite Guts
Solar Roadways: Energy-Generating Roads Made Out of Glass and Solar Cells

Tags: Energy Efficiency | Fuel Cells | Lighting | Renewable Energy | Utilities


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