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Lab campuses and the need for sustainable, resilient infrastructure

Buildings account for around 40% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Given the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate the effects of climate change, the built environment presents a significant opportunity for decarbonization.  

Some carbon reductions are already underway, with improvements to the energy infrastructure serving our buildings. This “greening” is partly due to the integration of renewables (mainly solar and wind energy) in our electrical grid and the push toward green hydrogen as a mechanism to decarbonize natural gas networks. 

However, on-site interventions are still necessary to decarbonize our building stock, incentivized by both external mandates and internal policies set by companies seeking to manage their own carbon emissions and contribute to a cleaner built environment.

Laboratories take center stage for decarbonization

Laboratory buildings and lab campuses are particularly challenging to decarbonize. They tend to require high levels of outside air for ventilation, which requires a lot of energy to cool, heat, and filter. They also tend to have high levels of process exhaust. Some lab buildings require extensive water usage for cooling and other processes, which — despite not directly influencing the carbon emissions of the lab itself — has a substantial impact on carbon emissions outside of the lab’s footprint.  

Princeton University's Frick Chemistry Laboratory

Carbon-emission reduction starts within the building itself, where there are opportunities for energy efficiency improvements including:

  • Airside heat recovery from exhaust systems

  • Demand-control opportunities on fume hoods

  • Heat recovery from lab processes

  • Separation between lab and non-lab spaces so that different levels of servicing can be applied to each

  • Thoughtful new building design that maximizes natural daylighting and, where feasible, uses other passive techniques such as natural ventilation

Opportunities for energy-efficiency improvements

Perhaps the largest opportunity for laboratory campuses comes through the careful planning, assessment, and implementation of campus infrastructure systems. Campuses often incorporate district-wide systems, such as those providing cooling and heating. District energy offers maintenance benefits as well as increased levels of operating efficiency. Applying decarbonization approaches to district energy enables all buildings served by the district system to reap the benefits of its low-carbon approach. We are starting to see a shift within our lab campus infrastructure toward more integrated systems, and this offers real opportunities for lab campuses to continue down the path of decarbonization. 

Integrating renewable energy with electrical energy storage through batteries is also becoming a viable and cost-effective approach to ensure critical lab facilities are equipped with resilient energy systems. At the same time, these systems offer opportunities to save on operational costs by providing options for when they import power from the grid or export power back. This system reduces the electrical demand of the campus, offers operational cost savings due to reduced electrical costs, and minimizes carbon emissions. 

Our sustainable strategies allowed the lab to achieve a 30% energy savings over a code-compliant baseline facility.

On the thermal side, heat recovery chillers can capture heat that would otherwise be wasted and put it back into systems that need it, like those that provide space heating or process heat. Centralized systems, due to their proximity, allow for the ready transfer of energy, as well as economies of scale. Lab facilities can also integrate demand-response technologies, such as thermal storage or thermal batteries, to further reduce energy costs. In campus environments where adequate planning has led to co-located systems, there are opportunities to capture waste heat from sewers and deliver it into thermal systems. 

The future of sustainable lab design

Looking to the future, the push for electrification in all our energy and transportation systems should bring further opportunities. With the ability to charge vehicles using clean renewable energy produced on campus, we can significantly reduce the carbon impact of fleets and private vehicles. We are also starting to see exciting opportunities around vehicle-to-grid power. This could present a future in which the batteries that store energy within vehicles can be leveraged by our buildings or campuses to provide additional energy capacity — flattening the demand curve of the campus and enabling the campus itself to be more easily and efficiently serviced by the utility grid. 

Finally, with the positive revenue streams available through many of the approaches outlined above, we are seeing a trend of campus energy that is provided as a service, where a third party finances and develops, and in some cases operates, the energy systems, with the service paid for by campus users. Ultimately this shifts the capital costs of these systems over onto operational budgets. 

Addressing greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors, particularly in lab buildings, is a pressing challenge. But there are many exciting distributed technologies and approaches to energy that, when employed on lab campuses with thoughtful planning, can reduce operational costs, increase resilience, and considerably reduce carbon emissions. 

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