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Sustainability

How LEED certification and power plants can coexist

With the use of renewables, green energy will become the norm, powered by LEED and PEER standards

By Shannon Bergstrom November 18, 2020
Part of the Charter Street Heating and Cooling Plant on the UW-Madison campus. A new model for control systems could help large central plants like these save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Courtesy: University of Wisconsin-Madison

In 2011, the became the first U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) LEED Platinum power plant in the U.S., serving as a long overdue replacement for a 90-year old heat plant that was on the verge of collapse. The design was based around cogeneration technology, a system that generates electricity and uses the “waste energy” to heat water, buildings and serve air conditioning units.

However, for adherents of the , perhaps the most surprising thing about the new plant was that it is largely fueled by non-renewables. For what is ostensibly a green buildings certification, the USGBC deemed that the energy conservation features put in place within the plant were worthy of its highest recognition, despite using natural gas (with the possibility of using biofuel) to generate energy.

Part of the reason for this is anyone applying for LEED accreditation is free to choose the kind of credits a building wishes to work toward. Theoretically, this could mean that a power plant earns most of its credits outside of its power generation systems. However, the there is more to the story here, and the LEED system strives to be adaptable to the world we live in today, rather than simply set idealistic goals for the future.

In the context of the OSU’s new plant, there can be little argument as to the efficiencies gained from its construction — emitting 38% less carbon than the previous plant and generating twice as much energy as the campus required. However, it is useful to consider how LEED can be applied to both new builds and existing builds here.

On one hand, LEED is pushing the installation of new, renewable, distributed energy sources as a fundamental part its , awarding a significant number of points depending on the amount of renewable energy generated in any given building.

However, on the other hand, it recognizes a clear need to ensure that existing power generation facilities are as efficient and eco-friendly as they can possible be. This means that, while our reliance on non-renewables continues, a thoughtful balance between consumption and conservation is the key. The bottom line is, with the right kinds of innovation, traditional power plants and LEED can coexist — at least for now.

Making the best of a bad situation

Perhaps the most compelling insight into the USGBC’s position can be found in . In 2015, with the support of the Obama administration, the EPA proposed the landmark plan as part of its efforts to combat climate change through the regulation of existing coal-burning power plants. Recognizing the inherent difficulties in achieving the goal of 32% carbon reduction by 2030, the USGBC pushed to allow states increased flexibility in reaching compliance.

The overarching objective, it seems, was to give power plants the tools required to make the best of a bad situation, i.e., rather than demanding an instant, wholesale switch to renewables, coal-burning facilities could work toward greater efficiencies and slowly introduce renewables, and other innovative technologies such as cogeneration, as they did so.

In fact, by regulating the way existing plants generate energy rather than simply enforce a switch to renewables, both the EPA and the USGBC envisaged a 30% rise in renewable energy generation by 2030 — as well as improving health through the reduction of harmful emissions and increasing community engagement. This was to be achieved by realizing its four building blocks, including:

  • Power plant efficiency improvements
  • Dispatching to cleaner natural gas combined cycle plants
  • Renewable energy
  • Energy

Currently, the Clean Power Plan is in an extended state of flux as the Trump administration attempts to roll it back. However, it does allow us greater insight into how LEED and power plants can coexist and that .

Decentralized energy generation

Today, much of the conversation surrounding “green” energy generation focuses on decentralized power plants, and as proven by the Oregon State University Energy Center, this approach can be highly effective. In fact, decentralized goes designed to distribute energy more efficiently.

Here, the LEED program has the opportunity to really excel, and much like the OSU plant, allows innovation from design to operation across a huge range of sectors. , the first commercial high-rise building to reach LEED Platinum certification, did exactly this: developing their own cogeneration power plant that works in a similar way to OSU’s.

Fueled by natural gas, the 4.6-MW plant is estimated to be two to three times more efficient than a traditional plant, providing water and building heating in winter and cooling properties for A/C units in summer, using the waste heat from electricity generation. Without this innovation, it seems unlikely that the building would have reached Platinum certification as many of the points required to reach accreditation are set out within the LEED renewable energy production guidelines.

However, doesn’t start and finish with buildings we inhabit, and a new type of power plant is rising to the demands of distributed energy. In August 2020, the world’s largest battery energy storage project, , was opened in San Diego to better store and distribute energy generated by off grid sources such as solar and wind.

A similar, albeit much smaller, project in ֱ York has been in operation since 2002. serves as a bridge between power storage and generation. To date: “The Gateway Center project has delivered over 100 MWh of stored electricity from the battery storage system to the local grid, providing support during periods of peak demand. The system also helps to reduce emissions by limiting the need for more carbon-intensive electricity during peak demand periods.”

These projects highlight the new approaches demanded by an industry that is quickly devolving, with LEED certification leading the way toward distributed and decentralized energy generation that may well become the standard as older fossil fuel plants are slowly phased out.

Power plants are buildings too

Circling back to the Clean Power Plan and how LEED integrates into existing infrastructure, what is clear for any existing power plant operator is that driving greater efficiency, even where fossil fuels are concerned, is very much part of the USGBC’s “green building” plan. In short, power plants are buildings too, and aside from a seemingly incongruous meeting of non-renewable and clean energy concepts, current thinking demands better performance from centralized and distributed energy generation facilities whatever they are fueled by.

Again, even without the CPP, LEED is prioritizing energy efficiency and encouraging existing plants to generate cleaner energy despite a reliance on fossil fuels. In 2015, in conjunction with the USGBC, Green Business Certification Inc. officially launched the . Modeled after the LEED system, PEER was designed to recognize that: “Buildings don’t exist in a vacuum, so integration with other industries, such as energy and power, is crucial if we are to create a more sustainable built environment. PEER will be a transformative tool for power systems regulation, design and operation.”

Today, the PEER system looks at outcomes across six categories, and while the underlying aim is to facilitate the move toward renewables, cogeneration and other technologies based on non-renewables are part of the picture. In fact, the PEER website itself states that: “PEER is for all power systems and includes guidance for cities, utilities, campuses and transit.”

In conjunction with LEED, PEER is revolutionizing the energy sector by taking a holistic approach to energy generation and distribution, measuring and improving power system performance and energy generation in all types of different facilities, including power plants and distribution centers.

Finally, with U.S. energy making great strides toward cutting C02 emissions during the 2010s with the use of renewables, it seems likely that this push for green energy, powered by both LEED and PEER standards, will become the norm for the sector. For now, ensuring energy is more efficiently generated and distributed, whatever its source, should be the aim, and as renewables come to dominate the market, not only will power plants be generating energy from less harmful sources, they will also be smarter and more resilient, consistently meeting our energy needs.

What is LEED? What is PEER?

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an internationally recognized green building certification system, providing third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance across all the metrics that matter most: energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts.

Developed by the , LEED provides building owners and operators a concise framework for identifying and implementing practical and measurable green building design, construction, operations and maintenance solutions.

PEER is a rating system that evaluates a poser systems performance across categories. According to Performance Excellence in Electricity Renewal (PEER), projects can become certified by achieving a minimum set of requirements and score under the PEER rating system. There are four levels of certification, designating how well a project is performing. PEER certification can become a tool with which to demonstrate value to investors, identify opportunities for improvement and implement those (including through clean energy procurement), and drive larger market change. Pre-certification is also available as an optional step in the process.


Shannon Bergstrom
Author Bio: Shannon Bergstrom is a sustainability operations manager at Recycle Track Systems (RTS), and a U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices. RTS is a tech-driven waste and recycling management company.