Valerie Geen
Valerie Geen, Head of Energy at the National Business Initiative

Valerie Geen, Head of Energy at the National Business Initiative (NBI), discusses South Africa’s transition towards adopting greener and more energy efficient buildings.

South Africa has over the last 8 years rapidly joined the green building movement, driven by factors such as sustainability and the country’s current energy constraints.

Buildings are the heart of every urban city and for many years making them green or sustainable has been one of the prevailing topics of the long standing energy efficiency debate as sustainable buildings are the essential prerequisite for sustainable cities.

Retrofitting commercial buildings

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, nearly 60% of the world’s electricity is consumed by residential and commercial buildings and the built environment is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

The conversation around green buildings in South Africa often focuses on building new, greener buildings rather than retrofitting existing ones because owners don’t recognise the potential savings.

Retrofitting includes installing equipment or technologies in older buildings to improve energy efficiency, reduce emissions and reduce overall operating costs.  Retrofitting can take on many forms, experts at the Private Sector Energy Efficiency identified three interventions with a short payback period that building owners can explore namely; processing and cooling, lighting and renewable energy sources (primarily solar photovoltaic (PV) power).

There is sometimes a misconception that retrofitting is an expensive exercise requiring big investments and is the reserve of industrial buildings and sky scrapers, yet buildings of all sizes have an opportunity to save on energy costs through retrofitting.

Whether buildings are specifically built for or retrofitted for sustainability, the objective must remain the same – the needs of the end user must be met.

What owners and tenants need to know

Apart from the social and environmental advantages to reducing energy consumption, such as  reducing the dependence on fossil fuels and minimising impact on the environment, green buildings offer significantly reduced energy and operating costs for both building owners and tenants.

The adoption of green buildings in our country is slow but is gaining momentum. This is evident in the results of the December 2014 research by the Investment Property Databank (IPD) and the Green Building Council of South Africa which estimated that the country’s uptake of green buildings grew from 16% in 2012 to 52% by 2015.

However, before building owners and tenants spend large amounts of capital on energy efficient technologies they can follow basic tips to minimise their energy consumption and save costs.

Another important aspect to note is that green buildings cannot be designed in isolation and it is important, especially in South Africa, that such structures form part of a greater spatial design.

Creating an energy efficient culture

By designing urban areas that promote the development of green buildings within corridors of public transport or within walking distance to residential zones, green buildings can become a part of an energy efficient culture and reduce demand on fossil fuels.

With the rising costs of electricity, energy constraints, and a collective movement toward sustainability, it has become increasingly important for buildings to become sustainable and to be incorporated into an energy efficient society.

Building owners and tenants need to remember that any retrofits or new buildings, while providing several benefits, still need to supply the needs of the end user.

Critical advice

The aforementioned tips have been formulated by PSEE experts based on their experience in several sectors, these experts have compiled some critical advice that can not only save energy but can cut 20% of electricity costs:

  • ‘Switch off’ policy, involve staff and increase awareness – Staff at all levels should be involved in making savings. This can be achieved by conducting regular meetings, placing stickers above light switches and posters around in-store service areas (available from the PSEE website). Failing lamps or equipment should be reported by staff and replaced or repaired. This will help maintain optimum equipment efficiency, and in turn, provide a safer working environment.
  • Label light switches – Light switches should be clearly labelled to help employees to select only those lights they need for the work being carried out (for example when cleaning or restocking the store out of hours).  Lights in unoccupied areas should be switched off, but remember to consider health and safety implications, particularly in corridors and staircases.  Installing occupancy and daylight sensors can achieve savings of up to 50% on lighting costs in some operations.
  • Maintenance –Keep windows, skylights and light fittings clean, replace old, dim lamps with new low energy LED technology, keep controls and timers in good working order, and repair any faulty equipment immediately.  Energy efficient equipment does not save energy if it is not used properly or not maintained, business are notorious for attempting to maintain equipment only when something goes wrong.  A regular, documented cleaning and maintenance schedule will keep your equipment running longer and more efficiently. For example, light levels can fall by at least 30% in 2-3 years without regular maintenance, and a fridge compressor that never stops running due to a faulty thermostat uses huge amounts of electricity – all unnecessary and avoidable costs.
  • Heating and cooling – although heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) can all be separate systems, it is worth considering them together because they interact with each other when providing a conditioned environment for the building. By looking at how each element of an HVAC system complements the other, it should be possible to fine-tune the system to save energy and money.