Berkeley Lab unveils $15.9 million energy-saving Flexlab

FlexLab
Cesar Ruiz/Staff

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National, state and university leaders gathered in the Berkeley Hills on Thursday morning to celebrate the launch of a multimillion dollar project — one that resembles any run-of-the-mill office space.

Inside one of the seemingly unremarkable buildings, a multitude of sensors and cameras are stationed between office desks and chairs, and the overhead lights are fixed in different directions — all integral equipment to gather data for Flexlab at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Berkeley lab’s latest addition aims to reduce energy use across the country by improving energy efficiency in buildings, which account for about 40 percent of all energy use in the United States.

“There’s nothing like Flexlab in the world today. It is one of a kind,” said UC President Janet Napolitano, who was joined by U.S. Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, among others, at the launch.

Flexlab will allow researchers to study heating, air conditioning and lighting in the space as an integrated system to find the optimal balance between the numerous variables in a building.

“For the first time, we’re going to be able to apply a very systematic, scientific method to how we make buildings … In the future, you can imagine that the lighting, and the windows and the air handling in a building will all work together in a very seamless way to produce the most energy-efficient buildings,” said Paul Alivisatos, Berkeley lab director. “It will have an enormous impact on our future.”

The lab’s design and construction, which began in September of 2012 and ended last month, was fully funded by the Department of Energy and completed on a $15.9 million budget. Flexlab features four testbeds — experimentation platforms — in total, with two cells in each to allow comparisons of different energy efficiency technologies.

The price tag for companies that want to use Flexlab will depend on the complexity of the project and the costs to reconfigure the space to match a particular experiment, but the base rental fee currently runs at $3,000 per cell per week.

About seven projects have made use of the lab this year, while at least 14 companies are lined up to take advantage of Flexlab next year.

One of Flexlab’s testbeds can rotate 270 degrees to better simulate different building orientations and accelerate experiments that would otherwise wait months for a particular angle of sunlight.

To imitate a typical office space in the most accurate way possible, the rooms are equipped with computers and laptops, which alter the heat load of the space, a measurement of the amount of heat over time necessary to maintain a stable temperature in a building, as well as large cylinders designed to emit the same amount and distribution of heat as a human occupant.

Flexlab is designed to test the comfort of the occupants as well as enhance energy efficiency.

One of the many trade-offs found in an office space includes that of daylight and heat: It is desirable to optimize daylight so the lights stay off, but too much sunlight overheats the space and forces the air conditioning system to work harder. Flexlab aims to find the right balance.

Genentech, a South San Francisco-based biotechnology company, and its contractor Webcor are currently utilizing one of Flexlab’s testbeds to plan a new 250,000-square-foot building.

“Flexlab provides us the opportunity to test-drive our building before we move in,” said Carla Boragno, Genentech’s vice president for site services.

Boragno added that using an energy-efficient model that is borne from the research at Flexlab will have an added impact on employees’ behavior and personal lives. After three months of testing, Genentech operators and staff will be able to spend time in the Flexlab to test and learn operations and eventually accelerate the delivery of an energy-efficient system into a new building.

The results from Flexlab’s work with Genentech and Webcor will be publicly available, as will a significant portion of all the data accrued from other projects at Flexlab.

Napolitano lauded the project as an impressive addition to the university’s efforts to reduce energy consumption. At the UC Board of Regents’ November meeting, Napolitano announced an initiative calling on the UC system to reach zero net energy consumption by 2025. Last month, Napolitano also formed a climate leadership council to advise her on the university’s sustainability efforts.

Flexlab presents another opportunity to align UC research with the university’s energy efficiency needs, Napolitano said.

“The University of California must not only be a leader in sustainable research, we must be a leader in sustainability practices,” Napolitano said. “I expect the Flexlab to help us achieve those goals.”

Flexlab will play a critical role in helping push California and the United States to being the most advanced energy economy in the world, Skinner said. Existing energy-efficiency standards and codes like California’s Title 24 energy standard will be put to the test through experiments in the lab.

“How brilliant that we have this so that we can actually know that these codes we’ve put into place or these construction methods that we’re using … are actually achieving the goals that we need,” Skinner said. “So we can get well beyond not just in theory but in actual practice, these types of efficiency, electricity reduction, energy use reduction and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, that we all so care about.”

Poneman recognized the role that Flexlab will play in the national goal of doubling energy efficiency by 2030 that President Barack Obama announced last year. And he emphasized the importance of the public-private partnership to maintain the facility and generate effective results.

Andrew McAllister, a member of the California Energy Commission, echoed Poneman’s message that current budget restrictions call for funding from the private sector, which can yield public value.

“In this day and age, these public-private partnerships are producing a lot (of) innovation and market relevance, because when a private company has their skin in the game, they can get pretty demanding,” McAllister said. “When you have innovative companies come in and plough the field, then other people can get in and plant their seeds.”

Interest in the project has also stretched overseas, with foreigners hoping to replicate Flexlab in different climates. Flexlab has already established a partnership with Singapore to collaborate on research and data sharing, according to Flexlab’s executive manager, Cindy Regnier.

“We definitely want to build long-term relationships and partnerships that leverage what we do so that it actually reaches consumers,” Regnier said.

Somin Park is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @_sominpark.