Friday, July 10, 2009

Google Visit: Facilities

Building many of its facilities recently, Google took advantage of the greenest techniques and products currently available. Other companies may still benefit from the approaches Google used since many green building improvements provide a high return-on-investment (ROI).

The most efficient green buildings cost less than five percent extra to build with costs mostly for design fees which are continuing to decline. The benefit is 25 – 30% reduction in energy according to the Green Building Council.

In addition to these “hard” benefits, green buildings make the most expensive resource --- its occupants --- more productive. Humans do better in environments with natural daylighting, consistent temps, less noise and reduced exposure to toxic materials. Employees are able to work longer without fatigue and are less stressed to enhance collaboration. A pleasant working environment can also attract and retain employees. Many employees are sensitive to environmental issues and appreciate an employer’s efforts in this regard

Seize the Day(light)
Buildings at Google leverage California sunshine for daylighting, as an alternative energy source and to grow some of the organic vegetables used at its cafes. Unlike many office buildings where access to sunshine is based on organizational hierarchy, the layout of the office space at Google allows sunshine to reach most of its employees. Daylighting reduces the need for artificial lighting which is 18 percent of an average building’s energy use per US Department of Energy studies.

Air conditioning (A/C) is also a focus at Google, since A/C is the primary cause of peak electricity use for most office buildings. Peak electricity is the most expensive both financially and environmentally when the oldest and dirtiest “peaker” plants are brought on-line. An additional benefit of reducing artificial light is to reduce the air conditioning load in summer. Installing advanced insulated windows and coating exposed roofing with reflective materials further reduces heat gain. These are simple facility upgrades that typically have less than 18 months pay-back.

The most significant way that Google reduced its peak energy demand was to install solar paneling on its buildings in Mountain View. Google reports that this saves 30% of its peak load. At current utility rates, pay-back will be achieved in about 7.5 years. Lacy Caruthers, of Google’s Green Business and Operations Strategy, provided a rooftop tour of one of the buildings. From this vantage point the entire installation could be seen; which includes over 9,000 solar panels and produces enough power for about 1,000 average California homes.

My field trip to the roof also illustrated just how much space conventional solar requires. Google’s installation which covered all of the viable roof space only provided 30% of its peak load. Office buildings typically require three to five times as much energy per square foot compared to a home. With multiple stories, an office building’s roof capacity is quickly exhausted with conventional solar. To provide more of a commercial building's energy needs, more efficient solar panels will be required or additional areas such as parking lots will need to be installed.

With over 500,000 office buildings in the US that could benefit from an upgrade, the impact to the economy and environment is significant.

Green Inside
Climbing down from the roof, my tour concluded by discussing office finishes. The office furnishing and finishes are non-toxic and whenever possible use sustainable and recycled materials. The carpet, for example, is a cradle-to-cradle certified product (C2C) and designed to make partial replacement practical. The carpet is in squares which allows for easy replacement of soiled or worn areas, which extends its life. Typically only 20% of a carpet is worn. The partial replacement avoids unnecessary costs, unnecessary use of resources and unnecessary disruption to the occupants. The supplier is a leader in sustainable manufacturing where old carpet is then used in a closed loop manufacturing process.

Carpet may seem humdrum but has a huge environmental impact with over 19 billion square yards manufactured annually. This is enough carpet to cover all the islands of Hawaii. Most industrial carpet is made from petroleum based products. The manufacturing process requires vast amounts of energy and water. It is often installed using toxic adhesives. When worn and removed, most carpet ends up in landfills where it will take thousands of years to decompose and likely over time to leach into soil or water supply. With a few industry leaders showing how greener manufacturing can improve profits and growth, the industry is now taking steps to improve.

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