NREL squeezes a Data Center in a Net Zero Building

WSJ has an article about National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and its difficult task to be be a Net Zero Building.  Here are nuggets from the article I found interesting.


"Traditional architecture is design first, then figure out how to make it work," says Rich von Luhrte, president of RNL, which has offices in Denver. "This project reverses that mindset: Energy drives the design."

The building, in fact, will control a good deal of the working environment. Some windows will open and close automatically as outdoor air warms and cools throughout the day. Other windows will be left to employees to operate—but the building will ping occupants with reminders, flashing alerts on their laptops (desktops use too much energy) when it is time to open or close particular panes.


The cubicles were engineered to save energy down to the smallest detail; even the phones, for instance, are special models that use 2.8 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month, compared with 10.8 kilowatt-hours for standard models.

Another striking feature of the NREL building: It will have no central air or heat and no fixed thermostat. The temperature will fluctuate during the day, though it shouldn't go below 68 degrees or above 80.


NREL plans to report on its setbacks, as well as its successes, in scientific journals and presentations to developers, architects and engineers. Office buildings account for 18% of U.S. energy consumption, so any lessons about efficiency learned here could "have a huge impact on our nation's energy security," says Jeffrey Baker, director of the Energy Department's local field office.

Where is the data center?  The WSJ doesn’t mention the data center.  But the official NREL press release does.

The RSF will be a 219,000 square foot facility supporting more than 800 Laboratory staff, along with an energy efficient information technology data center.

Then came the large new data center, vital to the Laboratory's significant and growing computational needs, but more than what a typical office building would include.

Data centers usually have voracious energy appetites. But this late addition still had to fit with the RSF concept.

Researchers came up with a combination of evaporative cooling, outside air ventilation, waste heat capture and more efficient servers to reduce the center's energy use by 50 percent over traditional approaches.

Because the data center serves the entire Laboratory campus and not just the RSF, an energy allowance was added to reflect the exception to the project. Now the RSF energy use intensity including the data center is 35.1 kBtus/sf/year. That's still better than most of today's energy efficient buildings and well under half the energy used by a similar building built to code for the same budget.

Also for climate control, a dynamic network of automatically controlled windows, evaporative cooling, radiant heating and cooling, window glazing and heat recovery from the data center.

How efficient is the new RSF building?

Comparison of Buildings Energy Use Intensity:
  • Average US office building: 90 kBtu/sf/year
  • ASHRE code for new commercial space: 55 kBtu/sf/year
  • Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Annapolis, Md.: 40 kBtu/sf/year
  • Big Horn Hardware, Silverthorne, Colo.: 40 kBtu/sf/year
  • NREL RSF: 35.1 kBtu/sf/yr, including the data center
  • NREL Thermal Test Facility : 29 kBtu/sf/year

Here is a video of NREL Thermal Testing Facility.