NELHA’s Gateway Center Eats Energy at 3 Times Predicted Rate

posted in: August 2006 | 0

No one could have asked for more favorable publicity than what the Gateway Energy Center received when it had its grand opening in October 2004. Newspapers across the state heralded it as the dawn of a new era in environmentally friendly construction that would give a jump-start to new directions in alternative energy research.

The group of three small buildings, two of them topped by steel lattices looking as though they had been fabricated from an industrial-strength Erector set, was designed to showcase energy-efficient technologies and serve as a fitting entrance to the complex of industry and enterprises on more than 800 acres of state-owned land at Keahole Point managed by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai`i Authority.

Though it has between 5,000 and 6,000 square feet of floor space (depending on who’s counting), the center cost roughly $3.5 million to build. The recently completed University of Hawai`i Medical School complex, at Kaka`ako on O`ahu was said to be the most expensive construction in the state, at $500 per square foot (including furnished laboratories). The Gateway Center, with construction costs of around $600 a square foot and largely unfurnished, puts the Medical School to shame.

Much of that was spent on design elements and features that allowed the center to be awarded “Platinum” certification under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council. Among other energy-saving features, the buildings boast thermal “chimneys,” which whisk hot air up and out and cause air chilled by deep seawater lines under the structures to move in. Mounted on the lattices are arrays of photovoltaic panels, which, according to information put out by NELHA, could produce all the electricity the three buildings could use, with a surplus of about 10 percent that could be sold to HELCO, the electric utility.

Since they were built, the structures have become a familiar landmark to commuters traveling along the Queen Ka`ahumanu Highway and have piqued the curiosity of the thousands of tourists who daily drive past the site, just south of the Kona airport.

But the great expectations voiced at the buildings’ dedication – that they would become a hotbed of hydrogen research or a training center for the next generation of energy engineers – have not yet come to pass.

And as for the revenues generated by sale of surplus electricity to HELCO? Forget it. Before construction began, NELHA had entered into an agreement with HELCO that allowed the utility to put its own photovoltaic panels on the buildings and retain ownership of them. Since the building opened and the electric meter started spinning, NELHA has been paying in the neighborhood of $1,500 a month for electricity to HELCO for powering the systems in the empty buildings.

What went wrong?

[b]Build It and …[/b]
They didn’t come. While the buildings were supposed to showcase environmentally friendly technology, they were also supposed to house rent-paying tenants who would generate a revenue stream for NELHA. Today the buildings sit largely unused. In the smaller (under 500 square feet) lattice-topped building, the Hawai`i Island Economic Development Board has a fancy desk and the Friends of NELHA, which gives guided tours of the buildings, has a plainer one. Neither organization pays market rent. In the larger (2,000 square feet) of the two lattice buildings, posters touting alternative energy line the otherwise vacant room, used now mainly for meetings of the NELHA board of directors. The laboratory building, a 1,980-square-foot cube, is also empty. The Hawai`i Natural Energy Institute has signed a contract to occupy the building and use it for research on renewable energy, but as of mid-July, no signs of any tenants could be seen.

For Senator Daniel Inouye, who was responsible for obtaining the congressionally earmarked funds that built the center, the fact that it remains largely vacant is a source of frustration, according to Jennifer Sabas, chief of staff for the senator’s Hawai`i office. “We want to make sure the Gateway Center gets used,” she said. “It is kind of an icon in the community.”

Apart from the vacant buildings, the Gateway Center is plagued by other problems, large and small.

The largest is almost certainly the energy bills. While the buildings are designed to minimize energy consumption, it still consumes about 3900 kilowatt hours a month. The electricity generated by the solar panels is in excess of that, but because HELCO owns the panels, NELHA has to pay for every kilowatt hour of energy used. Under HELCO’s contract covering installation of the PV panels, it pays no rent at all to NELHA, yet NELHA receives no discount on electricity.

The current director of NELHA, Ron Baird, was at a loss to explain how an arrangement so disadvantageous to the agency could arise. Jan War, operations manager, said he gets angry every time he sees a bill come in for electricity use at the Gateway Center. He, too, could offer no explanation of how NELHA entered into the contract with HELCO.

Jacqui Hoover was the NELHA staffer who nursed the Gateway Center through from inception to completion. She now works with the Leeward Hawai`i Planning Conference. When she was asked for an explanation, she traced the origin of the photovoltaic installation back to a problem with the exhaust ducts that remove warm air from the building, which Hoover and others commonly (but erroneously) refer to as solar or thermal chimneys:

“Originally the design called for a much larger thermal chimney than was needed,” she said. “As the process continued, designers did computer models and realized they didn’t need such large thermal chimneys. So you had this blank space on the rooftop of the facility. We wanted very much for the facility to be demonstrative of renewable energy. Photovoltaics came to mind as an obvious option. However, there wasn’t funding remaining in the federal funds or NELHA’s operating funds. So HELCO approached us and asked if this was something they could participate in. The attorney general’s office cut a deal — I shouldn’t say cut – they negotiated the contract by which HELCO was given the space and they did all the design.”
Maurice Kaya, chief technology officer with the state Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism who frequently represents the agency on the NELHA board of directors, told [i]Environment Hawai`i[/i], “we thought it’d be good to have a photovoltaic system sited at the buildings, even though there was no offsetting benefit to NELHA.”

“It was important to have a holistic installation,” he said, to demonstrate energy technologies and “be as energy efficient at one location as possible.”

Warren Lee, president of HELCO, sat on an advisory group that had input on the Gateway Center design. “At some point,” he told Environment Hawai`i, “they figured out they didn’t have enough money to finish the process. They were interested in seeing this completed and that it be a demonstration project for renewable energy… I was asked if we [HELCO] could provide PV panels. I said we could. That’s pretty much how it happened.”

Minutes of the meetings of NELHA’s board of directors show that from about July through November of 2003, the board regularly went into executive session to discuss the pending HELCO contract, which was signed by Lee of HELCO on November 3 and by Jeff Smith, NELHA executive director, on November 12, a month before construction actually began on the Gateway Center.

After the buildings were finished and the PV systems installed, it turned out that the exhaust ducts were now too short. The PV arrays mounted on the steel frames originally designed to support the longer ducts serve to divert hot northerly winds into them, which has the effect of reversing the flow of hot air. According to March 11, 2005, meeting minutes, the NELHA board was informed that it would take “$75,000 to retrofit the building to make it right for the solar chimneys.” With the shorter ducts, the board members were told, “when the winds change the building actually heats up about 10 percent of the time.”

The retrofit has not yet occurred. In late June, when the NELHA board was meeting, the large room became uncomfortably warm around 11 a.m. Ken Fowler of the Friends of NELHA said the problem was most likely the result of the shortened exhaust ducts funneling hot air into the building.

[b]Falling Short[/b]
According to Ferraro Choi and Associates, the architects who designed the buildings at the Gateway Center, the ventilation, cooling, and lighting systems at the center should consume only 2.5 kilowatt hours a year per square foot. In actual practice, however, the mostly vacant center’s electric consumption (around 3700 to 3900 kilowatt hours a month, or 45,000 kilowatt hours a year) has been about three times that rate – roughly 8 kilowatt hours per square foot per year.

What accounts for the difference?

Shayne Rolfe is an engineer with Lincolne Scott, the engineering firm that worked with Ferraro Choi in designing the buildings. When asked about the discrepancy, he replied, “Ah, yes. The seawater pumps.”

Those pumps take deep seawater that NELHA brings up from 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean and push it through pipes that cool the air and provide condensate for irrigating the landscaping around the Gateway Center. The pumps, said Rolfe, “are now pumping vastly more than they need to be so that we can provide condensate irrigation for the system… We never intended them to be run 24 hours a day. The system was only designed to run on an eight-to-five basis. We’re cooling that building all night, because we need to run the condensate 24 hours.”

That is going to change, though, Rolfe said. “We’re progressing with timers for the pumps and changing impellers,” which increase water pressure in the lines.

“The pumps were designed to supply water to the laboratories, which haven’t eventuated. So they’re running at far higher pressure than we need.”

When this all gets fixed, Rolfe said, pressure will be reduced by about half and operational hours for the pumping system will be drastically curbed. NELHA’s War said that the impellers were being fixed in mid-July, and “we’re looking into the timers. We’re pretty sure that there’s a programmable timing system” for the pumps that will allow them to be adjusted without installing additional hardware.

Also in the works, Rolfe said, is the extension of the exhaust ducts that take heated air from the Gateway Center buildings. (When air is heated in the shallow air space between the buildings’ ceiling and the copper roof, it blows out the ducts – and, at the same time, forces cool air from below the buildings into the main rooms. Rolfe explained that originally the design for the Gateway Center called for a “huge chimney” to be part of the buildings, “but through architectural and engineering design, we developed it into a more horizontal plane” – what he terms the “thermal roof assembly.”) War, however, said that there is no current plan to work on the ducts.

As to why the ducts were shortened in the first place, Rolfe said that the decision to do so came after a “value engineering” review – a process in which efficiencies of a project are weighed against their costs. “It’s a two-pronged problem,” Rolfe said of the shorter ducts. “The ducts are the right size they need to be now, but they’re being shaded by the photovoltaic arrays. In hindsight, we found that the ducts need to stick above the PV arrays.”
“So, yes, we reduced them in size to save money. However, we didn’t take into account the effect of the PV arrays on wind flow. So now we need to extend the ducts above the PVs.”

“Currently, the system isn’t running anywhere near the level it was intended to,” he said.

[b]Rate Shock[/b]
Another factor driving up the energy cost of the Gateway Center is the rate at which HELCO bills NELHA for the electricity that runs it. NELHA’s War notes that HELCO has categorized the Gateway Center as a user under its most expensive rate schedule, Schedule G. In June, ratepayers under this schedule were charged 32.6 cents per kilowatt hour. With the center using 3700 kilowatt hours, the bill for June came to $1,205.81, War said.

A spokesperson for HELCO said that the rate depends on the use reflected on each meter. In other words, the fact that NELHA is a major consumer of power has nothing to do with the rate reflected in billings for the Gateway Center, which is on one of half a dozen or more meters at the NELHA facility. Under HELCO’s rate schedule, the largest power users (as reflected in metered usage) are charged the lowest rates. It is a structure that seems to reward consumption and punish conservation: the smaller the use, the higher the charge.

Yet another feature of the buildings that hasn’t worked out according to plan is the pavement. In the effort to score high on the LEED scale, the sidewalks, lanais and the parking lot were not covered in asphalt (a fossil fuel-based product) but by “Soil-Sement,” a product that, according to its web site, puts a hard, polymer coating over soil. By March 2005, just five months after the buildings were finished, the NELHA board was informed that the pavement was “wearing quite rapidly after only a few months.” By April, Greg Barbour, acting executive director, told the board that “resolution of the Soil-Sement issue is still elusive… Soil-Sement did some compaction studies and are analyzing those results.”

Today the Soil-Sement is rough and pitted. The pavement is so soft you can dig a hole in the surface with the toe of your shoe. Fowler, of the Friends of NELHA, complains that people track the loose dirt into the new buildings.

According to War, no claim was made against the contractor. “It was determined that the Soil-Sement was installed according to specs. It was later tested by the manufacturer, and they found it was correctly installed. No further action was taken.”

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 17, Number 2 August 2006