Houston Launches $23 Million Building Efficiency Project

The City of Houston has agreed to pay Schneider Electric $23 million to retrofit 19 city buildings to increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

As part of the contract, the company guarantees the city will save $1.8 million a year over the 15-year contract, or they’ll pay the difference.

The deal highlights the no-brainer calculations behind energy efficiency, and was announced after the success of a smaller, $9.6 million contract begun last year by Schneider. Schneider plans to have both phases completed by August 2011.

Houston is the first C40 city in this country to announce a comprehensive retrofit program. The C40 cities group grew out of a meeting of leaders from the planet’s largest cities in 2005. The group partnered with the Clinton Climate Initiative in 2006 to push its membership to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency.

City hall, the police headquarters and police academy, a water treatment plant and two branch libraries are among the buildings to be retrofitted. The improvements include installing new and upgraded heating ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) equipment, retrofitting existing lighting fixtures, adding lighting controls and installing water-saving plumbing fixtures.

But a key part of the process will be retrofitting personnel, as well. As part of the 15-year contract, Schneider will train building operators, and those who work in them, in how to operate their buildings more efficiently.

Not so simple, efficiency

Shon Anderson, VP of sales at the Energy Solutions Group at Schneider Electric, a French company whose North American operations are based in Texas, said energy efficient retrofits are tricky–and sometimes counter-intuitive.

For instance: when retrofitting a building’s lighting system, the company needs to ensure that the heating system can make up for the heat lost by replacing incandescent bulbs with cooler compact fluorescent bulbs. Apparently, all those bulbs really do make a difference in a building’s temperature.

And while replacing an old, inefficient piece of equipment with a more efficient one would seem to make the most sense, if the retrofit can be done so that that equipment can be turned off 20 percent of the time, then replacing the old equipment may no longer make sense, he said.

“Until you peel that onion a little more, it’s tough to know what the right decision may be.”

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

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