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NCCOS’s Energy Conservation Measures: What You Can’t See Matters A Whole Lot

lightbulbTour the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., or any of the campuses, laboratories, and facilities stretching from South Carolina to Alaska and one of the most impressive sights is actually the one you don’t see at all.

It’s the energy not being used. The kilowatts no longer being burned needlessly, the gallons of gasoline not being consumed.

In effect, you may have to look pretty hard to see the energy savings accruing incrementally, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. Mounting up.

As is the case with most organizations, private sector no less than public sector, energy conservation is an ongoing effort across NCCOS, never quite completed and always a work in progress. It is what has to happen nationally—a lot of individual and seemingly unrelated steps leading to a big impact rather than one easy “silver bullet” answer to addressing our energy challenges.

You’ll find NCCOS’s conservation efforts in every hallway and room in which the lights shine or dim based on traffic or occupancy at a given time. You’ll find them in every Energy Star–rated personal computer atop desks and in more and more offices graced by natural lighting. You’ll find them on the highway, in the form of a newly acquired hybrid vehicle for shuttling staff or in strongly–encouraged carpools, and on the seas, in a major NCCOS research vessel newly converted to biodiesel renewable fuel.

The ubiquitous recycling symbol. NCCOS encourages all staff to recycle and has made an effort to put receptacles throughout their buildings.Like other far–sighted organizations confronting the nation’s energy conservation challenges and determined to do its part, NCCOS isn’t awaiting some magic cure–all to solve all its energy conservation needs. Far from putting all its proverbial eggs in one basket, NCCOS is taking tried–and–true incremental steps—each perhaps small individually, but significant when looked at in combination.

The NCCOS efforts take many shapes and forms: single–purpose and single–rider trips not taken; gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel unneeded and unpurchased; utility and heating and cooling bills lowered; debris trash hauls downsized or foregone altogether because recycling proved a better option.

NCCOS managers are the first to acknowledge that their trip down the energy conservation roadway is far from finished and that in fact it’s still at its relatively early stages. They point out that they can’t afford to jeopardize worker safety (or, for that matter, the safety of the many NCCOS contractors, collaborators, academic affiliates, and others) in the name of energy conservation.

NCCOS’s energy conservation activities comport with the agency’s “Safety First” psychology. For instance, energy conservation can involve dimming the lighting at closing time or using automatic sensor switches…but lights on in a laboratory or office space are a must to ensure the safety of even just a few onsite workers at any given time.

Another example: Exchanges between indoor and outdoor air can add to heating and cooling bills and higher energy consumption. But laboratories in some cases require single–pass air for aerosol control and cleanliness purposes, requiring more ongoing indoor/outdoor air exchanges than might be desirable solely from an energy conservation standpoint.

NOAA Ship HILDEBRAND, converted to run on biofuels in 2006. In the background is the CCFHR campus with the refurbished storm warning flagpoleDealing with existing—and, let’s acknowledge it for what it is, in some cases old and outdated—buildings also poses a hurdle. A common question building managers must address: How much retrofitting to forward energy conservation objectives can be justified given the expected remaining lifetime of a particular facility?

Those real–world considerations (not to mention federal budget limitations) aside, signs of NCCOS’s energy conservation commitment abound:

  • In one of the single most dramatic and highly visible initiatives, NCCOS managers in 2006 converted the NOAA Ship HILDEBRAND to biofuels, a move that is paying dividends in lower emissions in increased safety and perhaps also (a bit too early to tell for sure) fewer incidents of winter absenteeisms as a result of reduced respiratory damage. While the final energy impacts of the conversion remain to be determined, NCCOS managers say they already can see increases in speeds at certain RPMs (revolutions per minute), with less energy consumed per gallon. They also are finding reduced hydrocarbon emissions—and as a result reduced emissions of greenhouse gases— and reduced wear and tear on engine components.
  • Lighting has been changed–out throughout an existing building at NCCOS’s Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research (CCEHBR) in Charleston, S.C., increasing by 35 percent the actual output in lumens while achieving a 70 percent reduction in energy use per bulb. Bicycles and golf carts are available to facilitate short–distance trips around the Charleston campus.
  • Efforts are ongoing at NCCOS laboratories to seek out suitable substitutes for toxics and heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. What’s that have to do with energy conservation? One answer: Those substitutes can lead to fewer and smaller waste hauls and to less risk of contamination to water bodies—leading in turn to more energy savings. Another answer: reduced packaging requirements for nontoxic chemicals helps cut down on waste materials needing to be transported or disposed of and incinerated.
  • Motion sensor lighting has been installed in hallways throughout the Beaufort, N.C., Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research (CCFHR), and also in the buildings and dormitory at the Kasitsna, Alaska, laboratory.
  • Multiple auto sensor switches are in place throughout the Center for Human Health Risk (CHHR) facilities in Charleston, S.C., as are very large energy efficient double–thickness wall windows and second–floor egress skylights all aimed at introducing maximum natural lighting during daylight hours, when energy consumption generally is highest.

metal landfillWorking with local government officials, both CHHR and CCEHBR have put in place an emergency energy reduction/alternative energy use agreement involving local electricity and gas suppliers. In the case of a local energy curtailment emergency or declaration, for instance, onsite electrical or natural gas use will be curtailed for a specified period of time, and the facilities revert to emergency stand–by power supplies or to alternative fuels for their boilers. The plan is designed to help prevent blackouts, and it allows both utilities and their customers to better manage available energy based on peak demands.

In a 2006 audit of its internal Environmental Management System (EMS), NCCOS concluded that environmental consciousness—and with it the associated recognition of the need for energy conservation—is generally high among its employees, many of whom say they feel empowered to undertake additional improvements within their own working groups.

The agency’s EMS program “is a green light for green–thinking people to feel empowered,” it quotes one employee as saying. Still other employees indicated that they take their environmental awareness/energy consciousness mindset with them at the end of the workday, benefiting their homes and communities.

Keeping track of NCCOS’s wide–ranging energy conservation efforts falls under the jurisdiction of the organization’s comprehensive Environmental Management System.

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