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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Creative Energy: PNNL researchers are generating real-world solutions to a global problem

PNNL's building sciences: from concept to commercialization

The Department of Energy has a new vision for residential and commercial buildings in the United States—net-zero energy buildings that will produce as much energy as they consume.

According to DOE, the building sector—including residential and commercial buildings—currently is the largest energy consumer. Through new technologies and design approaches, however, a building constructed in 2025 may be 60-70 percent more energy efficient than one built today, with the remainder of its energy needs coming from renewable technologies, such as solar and wind, or other zero-emission sources.

"Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is supporting DOE in its efforts to reach zero-energy buildings through activities ranging from basic research to developing and moving new technologies into the marketplace," said Marylynn Placet, who oversees PNNL's work for the DOE Building Technologies Program. "Ultimately, our goal is to develop innovative approaches for buildings and help transform the market to accept them."

Assisting government and the private sector

With a diverse staff of scientists, engineers, economists and market analysts, PNNL conducts a wide range of buildings projects for DOE and other agencies, such as the U.S. Army and Navy. For decades, PNNL has helped the federal government improve efficiency through better operating and maintenance processes, sustainable design practices, analytical tool development and other types of technical assistance. PNNL also documents best practices in residential construction, in support of DOE's Building America program, to help private-sector builders reduce energy use.

Going "high-tech"

Another one of PNNL's long-term projects involves developing and deploying sensors, diagnostics, and controls to monitor and reduce energy use in buildings. Someday, buildings might be monitored and controlled with the same sophistication as today's automobiles.

Providing the science foundation

PNNL's basic research in materials science, thin film deposition and modeling serve as the foundation for a number of breakthroughs. For example, PNNL materials scientists are experimenting with biomaterials and new modular construction techniques for residences. At the molecular level, PNNL research is advancing the development of organic light-emitting diodes or OLEDs, a form of solid-state lighting that provides exceptional brightness, can be constructed with inexpensive materials and offers low energy consumption. Success in this research could transform lighting in buildings.

Helping consumers choose efficiency

In addition to the cutting-edge research in support of solid-state lighting technology, PNNL staff members are working to facilitate deployment in the marketplace. For example, PNNL is helping DOE develop ENERGY STAR® specifications and testing procedures for solid-state lighting products that will ensure that devices exhibit the kind of energy-efficient performance consumers expect. In addition, the PNNL-managed Light Right Consortium research is helping building owners understand the positive impacts on worker productivity associated with energy-efficient, quality lighting design.

Reshaping the market

Since 1991, PNNL's Building Energy Codes Program, or BECP, has delivered cumulative energy cost savings of almost $8 billion and saved enough energy to meet the requirements of about five million homes for a year. BECP works closely with national codes organizations to develop model codes that maximize energy efficiency in cost-effective and easy-to-understand ways. In addition, BECP works with state and local governments to adopt the new model codes and develops software tools that allow builders to determine if their buildings meet the energy code.

Researchers at PNNL also are helping DOE develop energy-efficiency standards for building equipment—some for the first time. PNNL is analyzing air conditioners and heat pumps typically used in hotels; commercial refrigeration equipment, such as refrigerated and freezer cases in grocery stores; and beverage vending machines.

PNNL capabilities in materials science, mechanical and electrical engineering, building energy analysis, simulation modeling, economics and market analysis underlie much of the cutting-edge research being conducted by PNNL for the Building Technologies Program and other agencies. PNNL is helping make net-zero energy buildings a reality by 2025—or sooner.

(Photo caption: At one of its state-of-the-art facilities, PNNL conducts organic-inorganic thin film research in the pursuit of revolutionary low-cost, efficient lighting.)

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