Grainger Engineering celebrates one-year anniversary of first zero-energy facility

1/24/2024 Aaron Seidlitz

Written by Aaron Seidlitz

The Electrical and Computer Engineering building at 306 N Wright St. in Urbana
The Electrical and Computer Engineering building at 306 N Wright St. in Urbana

The Grainger College of Engineering’s Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department celebrated the one-year anniversary of the ECE Building certification as the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s first zero-energy facility on Wednesday in the ECE Building.

Official Zero Energy Certification from the International Living Future Institute (IFLI) recognizes that the operational energy associated with the 238,000 gross square foot facility building is now offset through a combination of on-site solar production and solar renewable energy credits (SRECs).

As we strive to build a more sustainable future, the ECE Building is meant to be a living laboratory, allowing students and faculty members to research its sustainable features. It’s also meant to be a model for net-zero energy design in the Midwest, proving you don’t have to live in a tropical climate to produce more energy than you consume within a building.

“In so many ways, the education we deliver and the research we conduct at Grainger Engineering showcases a consistent dedication to innovation and forward thinking. The fact that the ECE Building is our campus’ first zero-energy facility proves that this same dedication expands to all areas of operation. We understand that the problems of today aren’t going to be solved on their own, and this is one more example of how we work diligently toward a sustainable future we can all share together,” said Rashid Bashir, Dean of The Grainger College of Engineering.

By taking on this worthwhile effort, Grainger Engineering proved what’s possible when emphasizing energy efficiency in campus construction projects. And the university plans to continue this emphasis as the campus moves forward with other construction projects.

“There is a sense of community spirit that is perfectly emphasized in an effort like this, through which so many people came together to help the ECE Building become zero-energy certified,” said Morgan White, Interim Associate Vice Chancellor and Executive Director Facilities & Services Designate, and Associate Director for Sustainability. “It’s inspiring to be part of a campus that devotes the requisite passion and perseverance to improving our sustainability efforts. The ECE Building is a perfect example of what is possible when we work together to improve the world.”

The ECE Building produces about 11 percent of its energy through its rooftop array, a 300 kW setup featuring 970 panels. The rest of its consumption is supported through SRECs from Solar Farm 2.0, a 12.32 megawatt (MWdc) utility-scale installation on south campus bordering the Village of Savoy.

The certification process to earn “zero-energy” status required a full year for verification and guarantees for continued zero energy operation into the future. The IFLI standard for meeting ZE certification includes accounting for all heating, cooling, and other energy a facility uses. Any non-electrical consumption is converted to a kilowatt-hour electricity equivalent to assess the efficiency performance and necessary offset.

Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Head Bruce Hajek
Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Head Bruce Hajek

“Achieving net zero energy was an aspirational goal of everyone who contributed to the project and is the embodiment of the teaching and cutting-edge discovery taking place in this world-class facility,” said ECE Department Head Bruce Hajek. “The ability to meet this goal—in less than 10 years since the building’s opening—by using solar energy generated on campus showcases the relentless campus focus on reducing carbon emissions and what is possible through collaboration and leadership in this critical area.”

Additionally, offsite renewable energy production must also be located within the same regional power grid and linked to building energy usage.

In November 2019, the building achieved LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for advanced energy efficiency features, such as LED and fluorescent lighting, intelligent systems to optimize energy usage, excellent space configuration, recycled materials incorporation, and other green design attributes.

“During the design process of the building, we wanted to aim for the highest possible LEED rating, which is the LEED Platinum level,” said Phillip Krein, Grainger Endowed Chair Emeritus in Electric Machinery and Electromechanics in ECE and Chair of the New Building Committee for ECEB during its construction. “However, there are other buildings on campus at this level, so the team considered what could be done beyond this. At least one of the design engineers suggested that we might consider full net zero, especially since we wanted to have solar panels on the roof. We decided to at least make design choices to support this target. There are many design attributes of ECEB intended to make it unusually energy efficient for a building of its size and type. 

In the end, it was recognized that true net zero performance required external solar panels. Ultimately, a portion of campus Solar Farm 2.0 provides the extra energy needed to reach the target.”

The facility was designed with most windows facing south for optimal daylighting, heat recovery chillers, chilled beams, exhaust heat recovery wheels, and occupancy sensors. Also, following the opening, the F&S Retrocommissioning team worked to enhance building control systems for peak efficiency by modifying programming, set points, and some controls.

Taking these steps to reach energy conservation and clean energy targets align with the overall sustainability efforts fundamental to Illinois’ land-grant university mission. The Illinois Climate Action Plan (iCAP) is the university’s strategic plan to meet the Climate Leadership Commitments, including becoming carbon neutral as soon as possible and building resilience to climate change in the local community.

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This story was published January 24, 2024.