Electricians Unveil Cutting-Edge Net-Zero Energy Training Center

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By Sharon Simonson

SAN LEANDRO—Northern California electrical contractors and an electricians labor union have partnered to create a 46,000-square-foot training center in San Leandro that aims to achieve the Holy Grail in environmental sustainability: zero net-energy use.

Led by increasing focus on energy efficiency in the built environment in California in particular, Local 595 of the electricians union and the Northern California chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association have taken a nondescript 1980s-era one-story building and outfitted it with technologies new and old.

The goal is to create not only a system that will produce as much energy as it consumes but a demonstration site where thousands of apprentice and journey-level electricians can be trained in what seems inarguably the future of the trade.

“Green technology is here to stay, we have to be ready for it. We are charged as a joint labor-management committee to train apprentices and journeymen, and what better way than to keep them on the cutting edge of green technology?” said Don Campbell, executive director of the Northern California chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association.

The press office for Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown said late May 29 that the California governor would attend the building’s public unveiling at 4:30 p.m. on May 30 at the 14600 Catalina St. site.

Architects evaluated decades of National Weather Service data about hourly wind, rain, sun and temperature in the microclimate around the building. Solutions premised on the weather patterns that were revealed allow dozens of solar panels and three wind turbines to produce as much energy onsite as the building will consume in a year combining passive strategies such as thermal heat and cooling. Mechanical systems abet, but aggressive energy savings are crucial because it is so expensive to produce energy on site.

“When we analyzed this spot, we found that over 60 percent of the [building’s] occupied hours a year, the ambient temperature is what would be sought mechanically inside,” said Michael Hummel, a sustainability architect with Environmental Building Strategies who advised on the project.

The building’s workings illustrate perfectly the expansion of the electricians’ training curriculum in the brave new world of sustainability, said Byron L. Benton, training director for the Alameda County Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee. For the last decade or two, training encompassed electrical construction in residential, commercial and industrial buildings. “Now we are embarking on energy efficiency and renewable energy,” he said. The curriculum will incorporate instruction on lighting and building automation systems.

The prevailing wind from the San Francisco Bay, while typically not speedy, is great enough, Hummel said. When it blows, air pressure around the building changes, with additional air pressure on the building’s sides and negative pressure on the roof.

Architects added 22 triangular-shaped monitors to the building’s roof, which admit light, hold solar panels and release heated air from the building’s interior. Thus, when the wind blows, cool air is pushed into the building via windows. As the air warms, it rises and is sucked out the roof via the monitors. “We got the monitors as high as we could and got the [chimney] stack effect going,” Hummel said.

Electrician apprentices spend five years learning their craft receiving 900 hours of college-level classroom instruction and completing 8,000 hours of on-the-job training; journeymen electricians must complete 32 hours of continuing education every three years, Benton said. The San Leandro building will serve 2,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and 300 electrical contractors. Besides 14 training rooms, it has a 5,000-square-foot Grand Lecture room that will seat 400 people stadium style and 300 at round tables.

“These are ancient building technologies. I am dumbfounded why people don’t use them more,” said Arne Ericson, a principal at Menlo Park-based Novo Construction, the general contractor for the job. “They are old concepts, but it takes someone who recognizes how to take advantage of these natural situations.”

Other professionals include Danville-based FCGA architecture, Dublin’s Belden Consulting Engineers, Livermore’s Red Top Electric, ACCO Engineered Systems and Los Angeles-based Cubed LLC.

The union leaders and contractors aren’t releasing details about the cost of the building and the upgrades. Net-zero energy buildings—there are 21 nationally, according to its latest count—cost anywhere from an average of about 10 percent more than a typical structure to nothing more, said Stacey Hobart, communications director for the New Buildings Institute. “Buying the renewable energy [generation equipment] is the most expensive aspect of net zero, so you really have to do the energy efficiency,” she said.

Malcolm Hotchkiss, president of the United Labor Bank, which financed the project, said the bank is accustomed to construction lending but was eager to get on board with this project to hone its own underwriting expertise for like projects going forward. The underwriting extended to understanding technologies such as battery systems and energy storage. “Net zero is the new wave. We really wanted to be instrumental in the process. We had to go back to school and become students ourselves.”

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