Pot, Meet Kettle: Science Labs are not Particularly Green

An article by Evan Mills, a staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, points out that scientific buildings use a lot more energy than average:

Improving energy productivity is a doubly worthy challenge, given that those making the biggest contributions to the science of sustainability often do so in highly energy intensive facilities such as laboratories, computing centers, and hyper-clean environments. There is a long way to go to meet the sustainable practices. According to a U.K. Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs survey, virtually all interviewed scientists view their field as an important factor in developing sustainable solutions. Only 40% of those surveyed reported having "always" or often considered the effect that their work would have on the environment (1). It has been estimated that a mere â¼1-3% of laboratories are "green" (4).

Given that today's scientific facilities can be more than 100 times more energy-intensive than conventional buildings, measured in terms of energy use per unit of floor area (Figure 1), energy use is probably the single most important contributor to these facilities' overall environmental footprint (6-8, 14).

Here is the key figure (Figure 1 in the article):


And huge energy consumers like CERN and the Tevatron at Fermi Labs are not the only offenders. You'r plain old biology or chemistry lab with a fume hood could be made much more energy efficient just by trading out the hood for a more efficient one:

Ventilation systems, including fume hoods, are the dominant energy drains within laboratories. A single average fume hood in the U.S. consumes approximately 35 MWh of electricity and 275 GJ of fuel or $8000/year (including direct ventilation energy and the energy associated with conditioning the air) (6). Given more extreme climates, the operating cost for the same hoods in Singapore or Fairbanks would be about $12,000/year (Figure 4). High-performance hoods can reduce these values by 75% (6).

However, while fume hoods represent the single greatest energy-saving opportunity in laboratories, the appropriate strategy is context-dependent (27). For example, where hood density is low and hoods are not the primary source of general laboratory ventilation, using bypass hoods rather than VAV hoods is simpler and just as efficient.

It is not enough to have a well-designed facility; occupants often must participate by activating energy-efficient features. For example, one study found a 66% savings potential for improved fume hood sash management (28), without even changing the equipment to higher-performance hoods. The associated sash-management savings potential in MIT chemistry laboratories was estimated to be $350,000 per year. In addition, while infrastructure decisions (building envelope and ventilation) are typically not in the direct control of researchers, the specification and purchase of energy-efficient laboratory equipment is something that they can influence.

The notion that MIT saved $350,000 a year simply by encouraging people to close the fume hood when they were done simply boggles the mind. I can say that the hoods in our tissue culture room are nearly always closed, but the ones containing chemicals in the labs are usually open. It never occurred to me how much energy they were using.

Anyway, if we are going to go about spending the science portion of the stimulus bill, why don't we spend it on making our labs more energy efficient. It would go a long way to convince the public of our trustworthiness if we lead by example on the issue of energy-efficiency.

Hat-tip: Science Insider


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I don't think that the metric in question is all that great. "energy use per unit of floor area" doesn't take into account that different types of buildings have different densities of subjects and such (a gym for example will under this metric likely be efficient). Different tasks will take different amount of energy. The point made is a good one, but the central graph isn't that great.

Per Joshua's reasonable comment, energy per unit floor area is certainly just a top-level metric, and we use it in the article more to make the point that high-tech buildings are way more energy intensive than conventional buildings. One needs to drill deeper to find out where the inefficiencies are. See the benchmarking pages at http://hightech.lbl.gov for examples of system- and sub-system-level benchmarking.

Green perfection is a gigawatt powerplant. It real world supplies more energy than it consumes! All research facilities should then be moved to powerplant sites. Any emissions from the latter go into furnaces of the former, creating 100% Green symbiosis with no energy costs at all.

Reseachers will have solar panels affixed to their buttocks, and be fined if their energy production goes dark.

As an OEM manufacturer of Fume Hoods we have a solution in the problem of sash management. We offer a device that automatically opens the sash when a person is in front of the hood, and closes the sash 60 seconds after the person leaves the front of the hood. This product will easily pay for it self in less tha two years.

By Gene DeCastro (not verified) on 22 Jul 2009 #permalink