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Plugging in to a leaner, cleaner energy future
Giant refrigerated warehouse a model of energy efficiency

By Onell R. Soto | Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 12:04 a.m. | San Diego Union Tribune

Nelvin C. Cepeda / Union-Tribune | At Innovative Cold Storage Enterprises’ refrigerated warehouse in Otay Mesa, workers use forklifts to move pallets to positions in the aisles. One of the coldest places in San Diego might well be the most efficient.

Half a block from the Mexican border, a giant warehouse uses sunlight to keep frozen food, well, frozen.

The $25 million warehouse, known as ICE II, has solar panels on the roof, super-thick foam walls and LED lighting to keep the temperature at around 0 degrees. It can store nearly three times as much frozen food as ICE I, its 11-year-old sister warehouse a mile and a half away, but it uses half as much electricity.

The warehouse was the brainchild of Gregg Hamann, who with his brother, Jeff, owns the companies that built, own and run it. He’d long proposed to clients of his construction company that they spend a little more upfront on energy-saving features, and save money on operations.

Photo by Nelvin C. Cepeda - Union-Tribune | Workers use large vertical forklifts called Condors to move pallets from ground level to the highest storage shelves. Energy-saving LED lighting also is used, which creates less heat. “It just made sense I ought to practice what I preach,” Hamann said. “That meant deciding to do whatever I could to make this a sustainable building.”

As Californians strive to help slow global warming by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released in the state, the focus has turned beyond alternate ways of making electricity to how to use less power altogether — energy efficiency.

The idea is simple enough to understand. If you’re cold at night, you know it’s better to close the windows than simply to turn up the heat. But we’re talking about even better ways of doing that, such as using double-paned windows and a more efficient furnace.

So when looking to reduce the amount of power generated by traditional means, it makes sense to first look at how to cut power usage, rather than concentrate on how to make more power from the sun and wind.

“Efficiency first,” said University of San Diego energy expert Scott Anders. “Once you’ve done that, you can explore ways of generating energy cleanly on-site.”

It’s not sexy, in part because if done right, nobody sees the difference. The new light bulbs are as bright, the air coming out of properly maintained air conditioners is as cool, the view through a double-paned window is the same and the pools cleaned with efficient pumps are as fun to splash in.

“Efficiency is the way to go,” said Anders, who leads the Energy Policy Initiatives Center, a think tank at USD’s law school.

Still, efficiency alone won’t get the state to its stated goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

“We want to do efficiency, but we also want to do all these other things at the same time,” he said. “We’re going to need more renewables, both at the utility scale and on-site. We’re going to need all of it.”

Efficiency has been a key policy in California for 30 years, and it is widely credited with keeping per-capita power consumption flat here, even as we’ve added all sorts of gizmos to our lives.

Photo by Nelvin C. Cepeda - Union-Tribune | Innovative Cold Storage Enterprises plant manager Matt Jones makes his way around the 2,700 solar panels on the roof. Half of them supply power directly to the plant. But it’s also an ongoing battle.

“We’ve been so incredibly inefficient as an economy, as a society, that there is more and more to do,” said Dan Adler, president of the California Clean Energy Fund, a nonprofit venture fund set up in the wake of the energy crisis nearly 10 years ago. “The low-hanging fruit grows back when it comes to energy efficiency; you have to keep picking it.”

The state is making big commitments to such efforts.

In September, state utility regulators committed $1 billion a year over the next three years for programs aimed at getting people to use less energy, a 42 percent increase over previous funding.

Locally, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. agreed to spend $278 million collected from power customers for efficiency programs.

That’s on top of efforts such as the city of San Diego’s Clean Generation program, which allows homeowners to pay for efficiency efforts and solar panels through their property taxes.

In addition, SDG&E is rolling out smart meters, which, starting soon, will allow electricity customers to see how much power they’re using on a daily basis. Utility officials hope that will lead to energy savings through increased awareness.

And on Thursday, Earth Day, the state rolls out a program using federal stimulus funds at that will give people up to $200 to replace inefficient washing machines, refrigerators and air conditioners.

Also, state building rules will call for new homes and other buildings to eventually make as much power as they use — to be achieved by reducing usage and increasing production.

Down at ICE II, run by Innovative Cold Storage Enterprises, one of Hamann’s companies, the efficiency and generation efforts were paid for in part with financial support from SDG&E, which put $229,000 of incentives into the project, and considered efficiencies in nearly every aspect of the building.

By using motion-operated LED lighting, the aisles in the warehouse are dark except when someone is working in them. The LEDs not only use less power, they create less heat.

Workers use cranes called Condors to stock pallets. That means the aisles are half as wide as usual, and the shelves are 50 feet tall, instead of 30, significantly increasing capacity.

And compressors in the refrigeration units use variable-speed drives — which means they can be precisely controlled. The cooling system runs at its highest capacity at night, when power is cheaper, then less during the day, to lighten the load on the electric grid.

The building is also designed to save water. Condensation from the refrigeration system is collected and used to flush toilets, and rainwater is collected in a 150,000-gallon storage tank and used in the cooling system.

The building’s big roof holds photovoltaic panels. Half of them provide power directly to the warehouse, where they supply about a third of its energy needs. The other panels are owned by SDG&E, and their electricity is put on the grid.

Also, the warehouse is so well-insulated that its refrigeration system can shut down for up to a day without a problem, so the company has signed up for a program with SDG&E in which it lowers rates in exchange for agreeing to cut back on power usage when there’s a shortage.

Not everything worked out as planned, however, said Phoebe Hamann Jones, Hamann’s daughter and the energy-efficiency consultant on the project.

Small wind turbines on the edge of the building don’t make enough power to pay for themselves. There just isn’t enough wind, she said.

The building was built and is owned by another Hamann company, Hamann Construction, which has worked on green buildings for years and counts the Stone Brewing Co. brewery in Escondido — an oft-cited example of efficiency and the use of solar power — among its projects.

While energy-efficiency projects like the cold-storage warehouse are good demonstrations, changes that will have a profound impact will involve widespread adoption.

“We’re hoping to get much greater penetration of energy efficiency,” said Mark Gaines, who oversees customer programs at SDG&E.

The utility says past efficiency efforts have saved enough electricity that the region has one less power plant than it otherwise would have had.

People might wonder why the company would be interested in having its customers use less electricity, but that’s explained by a state policy decision made years ago, in which utility profits were “decoupled” from the power usage.

“The utilities don’t make money on the amount of energy they sell,” Gaines said. “We make money off the investments we make in infrastructure.”

And from a jobs perspective, such efforts can be good for the economy, Anders said.

“You can’t outsource an energy audit,” he said. “Somebody in India can’t replace your air conditioner. These are all local jobs.”

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