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How Can Public Sector Buildings Improve Energy Efficiency?

Image of Natalie Patton
Natalie Patton

During the summer of 2020, the United Kingdom’s government responded to substantial pressure from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to prioritize energy efficiency in an effort to revive the economy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Specifically, the government committed £1 billion to retrofit public sector buildings. This “green recovery” not only provides much-needed infrastructure to increase energy efficiency, but is creating jobs throughout the UK, preparing buildings for low-carbon heating, and setting the country on a course to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. 

This ambitious plan can have a big impact. Take, for example, schools. According to the Carbon Trust, a British consultancy that advises businesses, organizations, and governments on sustainability issues, 50% of the £543 million spent on energy by schools is for lighting. If all public schools in the UK deployed energy-efficient technology as per the plan, electricity costs would be reduced by over £100 million each year. In public sector buildings around the world, energy efficiency goals like these can lead to substantial savings for taxpayers, create new jobs, and reduce carbon emissions.

The Barriers to Energy Efficiency in Public Buildings

In many ways, public buildings are just like other buildings. To function satisfactorily, their various systems require regular monitoring and maintenance. But because of their unique uses and funding sources, pursuing public sector buildings’ energy efficiency offers unique opportunities for creating a greener future. And while many of the challenges inherent to increasing efficiency in private sector buildings are the same as those in the public sector, as an asset owned by the electorate, these buildings bring challenges that other buildings do not. 

These may include:

  • A hodgepodge of legacy and newer systems.
  • Limits on cloud connectivity resulting from heightened concerns about cybersecurity.
  • Extensive documentation requirements.
  • Rigorous procurement procedures.
  • Stricter building regulations.
  • The need to prioritize public safety and comfort.

Public sector buildings also have diverse uses and are occupied by people with diverse needs. Key among these are the government employees who use these buildings every day.

Motivating Change

Typically, building owners and managers of private buildings benefit from a reduction in costs due to increased energy efficiency. However, one principal barrier to implementing programs that deal with public sector buildings’ energy efficiency stems from the fact that the people in public buildings who consume the energy are typically not the ones who directly benefit from its reduction. Workers in the private sector know that their jobs depend to a certain extent on companies turning a profit, so they may be more apt to accept cost-saving measures. Research suggests that government workers have less incentive to do this. For this reason, understanding and shaping the behavior of those who occupy and work in public buildings will help those charged with increasing their efficiency. 

Achieving public sector buildings energy efficiency may involve:

  • Creating a sense that workers can control energy consumption in the workplace. 
  • Educating workers to accept their individual impact on energy consumption. 
  • Improving attitudes to encourage energy saving and see it as a positive outcome. 
  • Increasing workers’ knowledge about how to personally perform energy-saving actions. 
  • Promoting personal norms so that workers feel an obligation to reduce energy consumption.  

Understanding these motivational differences between public and private employees and taking steps to encourage energy use reduction can make all the difference. Evidence backs this up. In a 2020 study of employees at three public buildings in Greece, workers were encouraged to expand their knowledge base concerning how the devices they used every day consume energy. They were then given instructions on how to develop more energy-efficient habits, resulting in meaningful behavioral change and an improvement in attitudes toward saving energy.

The Value of Retrofitting

Deploying strategies to enhance energy efficiency in public sector buildings is a multi-step process. This can include building surveys, calculations gathered through energy audits, and financial analyses to determine the financial benefits of the strategy. Factors like health and safety concerns, occupant comfort, employment opportunities, and the impact on economic growth may inform whether and how efficiency measures are taken.

With the older age of many public sector buildings, achieving energy efficiency often requires overcoming a number of obstacles. Older buildings may be poorly positioned, or have outdated HVAC systems, insulation, and other aspects that make it more difficult to retrofit them for efficiency. Yet these same features mean that efficiency measures can have a powerful impact. As a result, retrofitting often offers more economic incentives than hindrances.

Some examples of successful retrofits include:

  • Australia: Australia’s SAVEnergy program tweaked its energy efficiency auditing procedures in federal buildings to include follow-up and encouraging retrofitting projects; retrofits increased from about 25% to over 50% of audits. 
  • Canada: From 1991-2013, Canada’s retrofitting projects, financed and implemented through energy service companies, saved approximately 15-20% per building, cutting costs by approximately $40 million USD per year.
  • Mexico: In 1998, Mexico began focusing on energy-saving lighting to retrofit government facilities, reducing electricity use by 30%.

Oftentimes someone is needed to champion a project in order to move it forward. Energy audits provide critical impetus for planning building retrofits, whether these are carried out externally or internally.

The Potential of Smart Transformation

While educating workers and retrofitting buildings with high-efficiency equipment may lead to cost savings, unifying building systems and adding state-of-the-art controls can fundamentally transform how, when, and why energy is used in public sector buildings. With advanced building management systems supported by secure Internet of Things (IoT) devices and predictive analytics, even legacy buildings can become truly energy efficient. 

Some ways in which analytics-led smart systems can lower energy consumption include:

  • Automatically adjusting lighting and HVAC functions according to variables like occupancy, season, operating hours, or indoor air quality.
  • Providing insight into historical energy use, identifying trends, and pinpointing areas of potential improvement.
  • Using advanced fault detection and diagnostics to identify suboptimal equipment performance. 
  • Objectively tracking progress toward goals.

The US General Services Agency (GSA) showed what government agencies can achieve when smart technologies and advanced controls are used to improve energy efficiency. In 2012, the GSA challenged energy service companies to develop innovations that would improve energy efficiency in the 30 buildings owned by the agency. Ameresco Inc. came up with a plan costing $45 million that would decrease energy consumption by 60%, exceeding the GSA’s 50% reduction target. Nicole Bulgarino, now an Executive Vice President for Ameresco, attributed this to the technology used to collect, understand, and control energy use within the buildings: 

We were able to look holistically at all the systems, both mechanical and electrical. We’re using an advanced building control system that has a very good level of control, and we’re tying it into the building’s operations and occupancy rather than just set points. So, it wasn’t just a matter of installing light fixtures. The lighting controls are integrated with the HVAC system, so you’re seeing the lighting savings and controlling the heat and air for the building while it’s coordinated with the occupancy. 

With an ability to track energy trends and usage, the system is equipped to verify how much energy it is conserving. Additionally, facilities managers can gain insights into energy consumption in each building to support preventative and predictive maintenance. Termed a “deep retrofit”, the project is proof of what is possible when the right technologies are used to improve public sector buildings’ energy efficiency. 

The value of smart building management systems in the immediate term is undeniable. In the long term, it will only increase. From bolstering local economies to protecting the environment to supporting the development of smart cities, integrating state-of-the-art technologies now will pay dividends for years to come. 

Buildings IOT’s cutting-edge products and services help public sector buildings achieve better energy efficiency. To learn more, contact our expert team today.



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