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The federal government is encouraging commercial property owners and developers to capitalize on new technologies to reduce energy consumption. Just this month, the US Department of Energy launched a Zero-Net Energy Commercial Building Initiative (CBI) and established the National Laboratory Collaborative on Building Technologies (NLCBT) in the hope of developing zero-net energy commercial buildings by 2025.

It’s the latest in a series of initiatives the federal government is sponsoring to help commercial and industrial properties offset their energy use from the electricity grid. According to government statistics, commercial buildings used 18% of the energy nationwide and generated 15% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2005. In a typical office building, the DOE reports, energy use accounts for 30% of operating costs, the largest single category of controllable costs.

Earlier this year, the DOE completed the 500th Energy Saving Assessment at the nation’s largest industrial facilities. The assessments reportedly have helped companies identify opportunities to save more than 80 trillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) of natural gas–roughly equivalent to the natural gas used in about one million American homes. If all of the recommendations from the assessments are implemented, the DOE estimates the properties would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by seven million metric tons and save their owners more than $800 million in energy costs annually.

The DOE is also spearheading the creation of Commercial Building Energy Alliances (CBEAs), which are designed to minimize the energy and environmental impact of commercial buildings and help property owners reduce energy costs. Dru Crawley, team leader, Commercial Buildings R&D for the DOE’s Building Technology Programs, says the goal is to showcase best practice technology demonstrations, set standards and encourage support for mass production of promising processes and products.

The DOE launched the Retailer Energy Alliance (REA) in February. It plans to start the Commercial Real Estate Energy Alliance, which will focus on building owners, managers and developers, in Feb. 2009, followed by the Institutional Energy Alliance about a year later, Crawley explains.

Retail buildings in the United States account for approximately 20% of commercial sector energy consumption and represent the fastest growing subsector, making them an important opportunity for savings, Crawley explains. The REA is designed with both economics and the environment in mind.

The group has already attracted support from about two dozen companies with more than two-billion sf of building space, including the nation’s largest retailers: A&P, Applebee’s, Arby’s, Bealls, Belk, Best Buy, Boston Market, Food Lion, Hardees, The Home Depot, IKEA, JC Penney, John Deere, Kohl’s, Lowes, Macy’s (Federated), McDonalds, REI, Staples, Supervalu, Target, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods.

At its first supplier summit in Denver in June, retail representatives concurred it was important to save energy. “They were excited to be able to talk with each other. These aren’t competitive issues. They’re energy issues, which affect all retailers, Crawley says.

Many retailers are already taking action to curb energy use and costs. At a new store in Austin, Office Depot installed 50 skylights from Utah-based Ciralight Inc. Each one has a reflective mirror that tracks the sun, directing sunlight through a prismatic lens that diffuses it into the store.

A computer monitors the store lighting, and cuts the output from the fluorescent lights when the natural light is sufficient. There are also several silicon-glass solar panels on the roof, generate about 10% of the store’s electricity, said Edward Costa, Office Depot’s vice president of construction.

Wal-Mar and Best Buy are also using skylights and self-adjusting lighting in some stores, while Kroger, Safeway and other retailers are using energy efficient light-emitting diodes or LEDs rather than regular incandescent bulbs in freezer units.

Dwayne Shmel, manager of architecture for Best Buy, said most property owners and developers have been cooperative about installing skylights and other energy efficient technologies because it adds value now and for any possible future tenant. “So far, the developers are on board with us at increasing energy efficiency,” he says. Shmel says Best Buy supports new technologies to cut energy use, but added that the company is not willing to pay research and development costs for those products.

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