Can sunshine light our skyscrapers?

The New York Times Co.'s innovative new technology may provide a blueprint for the future of energy conservation

Topics: Alternative Energy, Sunlight, Office, Energy, Scientific American,

Can sunshine light our skyscrapers?
This article originally appeared on Scientific American.

Scientific American The radiometer tracks the sun’s progress across the Manhattan skyline and sends a signal from the roof to the command computer on a floor 90 meters below. Blinds fall slowly with the buzz of an electric motor, cutting off the sun’s glare on computer screens. Another computer triggers the shades on the opposite side of the building to rise while also shutting off the air-conditioning and adjusting the internal lights.

The New York Times Co. saves energy at its 52-story headquarters using the oldest lighting technology in the world: the sun. Floor-to-ceiling windows let sunlight flood into the office space and sensors then dim the internal lights to save energy. In the process, compared with other buildings in New York City, the Times Building has reduced its energy use by 24 percent, according to a new report prepared by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).

Letting the sun do the work of lighting up buildings is obvious. It’s cheap, it’s free and it’s as easy as a window. Or, as managing director of Sustainable Energy Partnerships Adam Hinge says, “there are lessons we can relearn” from the building practices of the time before cheap fossil fuels and ubiquitous air-conditioning. As it stands, the energy used to light, cool and vent the buildings of the world’s cities accounts for roughly 40 percent of humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for climate change.

But using daylight turns out to be more complicated than building floor-to-ceiling windows. A modern building in a city like New York requires specific glazing on its windows to control glare as well as some form of shade to block at least some of the sunlight and enable employees to see their computer screens. An energy-efficient system requires dimmable lights that must be affordable, long-lasting and easy to maintain. And the people using the building must like the system—or at least find it easy to control.

In a bid to gain a better understanding of all those factors, the Times built a full-scale model of 420 square meters of the building in College Point, Queens, to test various systems before going ahead with final construction in Manhattan. Even then, outfitting the Times’s 20 floors of office space with daylighting equipment constituted “the largest direct procurement of innovative lighting and shading technologies in the U.S.,” according to the LBNL report.



New York City boasts some 10 percent of all the office space in the entire U.S.—more than 50.1 million square meters—and could save $70 million a year in power costs, or roughly 340 gigawatt-hours of electricity, by relying more on sunshine (as well as even simpler fixes like turning off the lights that are not needed at night.) That’s according to another recently released report dubbed “Let There Be Daylight” from Green Light New York, an advocacy group, which notes that more than a quarter of the energy used in New York City’s buildings goes to interior lighting, which is often used even in the middle of a sunny day.

All the way back in 1977, when LBNL’s buildings guru Stephen Selkowitz began working on energy-efficient construction, his very first project advocated the use of more daylight. Yet, in the 35 years since then the trend has been in the opposite direction. “I’m a failure, because we should have solved the problem by now,” he says. “It has not been scalable,” meaning the lessons learned in one building have not been translated into other similar buildings or even other cities.

The Times Building is an example of that as well. Whereas the company itself employs a sophisticated daylighting and energy savings system, it only inhabits slightly less than half of the 140,000-square-meter building. The remaining space is rented out to tenants by building manager Forest City Ratner—and not all the tenants opt for such systems, which can cost from $2 to $10 per square foot (0.09 square meter) of office space.

Of course, that cost does deliver roughly three kilowatt-hours of energy savings per square foot per year, by Selkowitz’s analysis of the Times Building, or roughly $13,000 saved annually per floor. That’s “pretty darn good,” he notes. But building managers are often skeptical. Even New York Times facilities director Patrick Whelan thought the new system, especially the under-floor air-circulation vents, would be a “nightmare” when the company moved in back in 2007. (Under-floor vents save energy by requiring fewer pumps to move the air as well as relying on the natural warming of the internal building air to allow circulation. Cold air comes up from floor, warms and rises to the ceiling.)

“Basically, things are working really well,” Whelan says. The under-floor vents proved easier to access and quieter than traditional pumped vents in the ceiling and, in five years, only 5 percent of the energy-saving, dimmable fluorescent lights have had to be replaced—proving that the bulbs are durable. “To tell you the truth, we get very few complaints,” he adds.

Yet, thanks to new buildings rising to the north and west, the sophisticated system now has to be retrained to deal with unexpected glares off of new windows. That requires a comprehensive study of reflections and then a total reprogramming of the computer control system. In the end, although using sunshine seems easy, “you can’t fall out of bed and do this by yourself,” Selkowitz says.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>