Every year, utilities and governments invest billions of dollars on energy efficiency programs and technologies designed for residential and commercial buildings. According to the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, in 2015, electric utilities spent more than $6 billion on energy efficiency programs, while natural gas utilities spent nearly $1.4 billion.

The Resources 2016 study conducted by Deloitte found that U.S. residential and commercial customers also are committed to reducing energy consumption and making investments in energy efficiency upgrades to their homes and businesses. This is despite the fact that low energy prices are reducing the financial incentive to do so.

In 2004, a group of local distribution companies came together to form Utilization Technology Development (UTD), a not-for-profit corporation that serves utilities that represent more than 40 million natural gas customers in the Americas and Europe. UTD develops, tests and deploys new technologies and processes that are more-efficient, address environmental impacts, and lower first-cost. The Gas Technology Institute (GTI), a leading energy research, development, and training organization, manages the program and performs much of the research and development.

Earlier this year, GTI International, a GTI subsidiary, announced the merger of three of its subsidiaries — Fisher-Nickel, Davis Energy Group, and Bevilacqua-Knight, Inc. (BKi) to form a new, professional services company called Frontier Energy, Inc. Frontier Energy is advancing gas and electric energy efficiency technologies and programs for homeowners and businesses.

3 GTI FSTC Convection Oven TestingGTI research teams develop and test energy-efficient commercial food service equipment at PG&E’s Food Service Technology Center.

Although California has one of the lowest per-capita total energy-consumption levels in the country, it continues to seek ways to improve. In fact, according to the California Energy Commission, “[t]o reduce greenhouse gas emissions from building energy consumption, California’s highest priority is energy efficiency.”

Title 24, the state’s most well-known energy-efficiency initiatives, provides minimum requirements for energy performance of new homes, setting the stage for meeting the longer-term goal of California’s Residential ZNE Action Plan: zero net energy (ZNE) new home construction in California by 2020. Davis Energy Group, a division of Frontier Energy, Inc., has a long history of contributing to ZNE and is currently under contract with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to evaluate options for raising the performance levels in the 2019 Title 24 Building Energy Standards in California.

In a project funded by the California Energy Commission launched last summer, GTI, Frontier Energy, and many other partners are working with Habitat for Humanity to demonstrate that ZNE homes can be made affordable through the use of integrated project delivery — project management approaches that harness the unique talents of a collaborative alliance of participants to reduce waste and optimize efficiency — as well as low-cost construction methods, high-performance housing techniques, and solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. The team will gather data on two homes — one all electric and one with mixed electricity and natural gas — to predict energy savings, buildability and market suitability.

Frontier Energy’s Davis Energy Group division has played a role in other ZNE-related projects, including West Village, a planned ZNE community at the University of California-Davis. They also were part of the design team for the Honda Smart Home that features new technologies that greatly reduce energy consumption. In 2016, the house produced more energy than it consumed, including the power needed to drive an electric vehicle locally. Davis Energy Group continues to collect and evaluate data on the performance of the home.

These and other Frontier Energy projects will leverage the substantial groundwork that has been done to support source-to-site energy efficiency standards, which have become a critical component of ZNE research. Frontier Energy expects to demonstrate the viability of mixed-fuel, ZNE-ready homes for both space and water heating end uses.

GTI’s team is also looking to demonstrate that by combining above-code practices with high-efficiency, low-capacity heating and cooling HVAC systems, new and existing single-family homes with tight building envelopes can satisfy space conditioning and comfort requirements. They also can achieve energy savings of more than 30 percent — compared with Title 24-compliant or existing homes with standard equipment.
3 GTI Seattle GHPWHThe gas-fired heat pump water heater (GHPWH) features new technology that enables 50 percent energy savings over other HPWHs. (GTI)

In California, water heating is high on the list of priorities for energy savings. More than 1.7 billion therms of natural gas are consumed each year for residential water heating in California investor-owned utility territories, with most of this use occurring in the 95 percent of homes with minimum-efficiency-storage water heaters. Even so, not much has been done in recent years to advance high-efficiency water heating technology, largely because of the high, final costs for even the most modest efficiency improvements.

Initiatives underway are aiming to change all that. A project at five homes in the Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) territory will aggressively advance water heating efficiency and use the resulting cost savings to offset the technology’s cost. Thanks to a grant from CEC and co-funding from SoCalGas and UTD, the project will demonstrate a new class of water heater — a gas-fired heat pump water heater (GHPWH) designed by Stone Mountain Technologies, Inc., with technical support from GTI and other manufacturers.

An earlier field demonstration in the Pacific Northwest was funded by a partnership of Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, Inc. (NEEA) and Intermountain Gas. It provided answers on installed performance, predicted savings, knowledge level of installation contractors and market barriers. Additional data that will be provided by the SoCalGas tests will help to quantify the impact of the technology, and address known reliability and performance issues.

These ultra-high-efficiency units integrate a small absorption heat pump with a hot water storage tank that has a projected Uniform Energy Factor of 1.30, more than twice that of the most common minimum-efficiency gas storage water heaters. The GHPWH technology offers lower installation costs than other HPWHs, the lowest operating cost and cost of ownership, and 50 percent energy savings.

In 2005, according to a study from Energy and Environmental Analysis, Inc., there were approximately 120,000 large commercial boilers in use at hospitals, schools, multifamily homes and office buildings. “Many of these are conventional hydronic [hot water] boilers,” says Dave Cygan, R&D manager at GTI. “They’re old and inefficient, with the single-largest energy loss occurring through the vent pipe.”

GTI has been working to advance the commercialization and adoption of the HeatSponge Sidekick economizer, a new technology that would recover a significant portion of energy lost through flue gases, while also reducing the carbon footprint and nitric oxide (NOx) emissions. A standalone unit, the Sidekick makes installation quick and easy. It can be easily customized for use on boiler capacities greater than those typically offered in packaged systems. Field-testing has begun at an elementary school in Salt Lake City — in cooperation with Questar Gas — and will collect performance data to evaluate the long-term operation of the boiler economizer.

Every year, the food service industry loses several billion dollars in profits to energy and water waste. Restaurants are at the top of the list, consuming nearly three times the energy of the average commercial building per square foot, according to the Energy Information Administration. A large portion of that energy is used to heat water — on average, more than 2,000 gallons per day are used.

3 GTI Salt Lake city Elementary School HeatSponge Sidekick IMG 0261Field-testing of the HeatSponge Sidekick economizer is underway at an elementary school in Salt Lake City, Utah. (GTI)

With the support of UTD, a GTI research team is working to demonstrate a new technology for integrated commercial hot water and air conditioning that promises to deliver efficiencies of 40 percent or more. In addition, the team will quantify the energy savings from “free cooling” against the goal of displacing 20 percent or more of A/C electricity consumption. With a CEC grant and R&D funding from SoCalGas, the team will install and test a low-cost gas heat pump (GHP) at two restaurants in the SoCalGas territory.

GTI also plays a critical role in developing new, commercial food service equipment. It assisted with the burner design and field-testing of the Royal Range of California’s high-efficiency, deep-fat fryer. The fryer was just awarded with the Energy Solutions Center (ESC) Blue Flame Product of the Year Award, and is also a recipient of the 2017 Kitchen Innovations Award for its efficiency.

Known as the RHEF-45-CM, it is the first fryer to utilize an innovative heat exchanger that results in lower energy consumption, both during the idling and cooking periods. The equipment even exceeded both ENERGY STAR requirements for gas savings and cooking efficiency, and field-testing has demonstrated 63 percent, heavy-load cooking energy efficiency.

Complementing technology development efforts, Fisher Nickel created the Food Service Energy Efficiency Expert (Fe3) training program, a six-module, online sustainability course to teach basic energy principles and practical applications in the commercial kitchen. Individuals who complete the course earn Fe3 accreditation.

Thanks to Fisher-Nickel’s role as manager of PG&E’s Food Service Technology Center (FSTC), it can provide restaurant owners and operators with kitchen equipment test reports, design consultation services, on-site facility surveys, educational seminars and equipment-testing services.

Regulators, utilities, engineers, manufacturers and other stakeholders are working together to meet today’s new, energy efficiency requirements. “In the rapidly evolving energy efficiency and technical consulting business, it is critical to find new ways to creatively address challenges,” said Ron Snedic, president of GTI International.

The services, programs and tools that are now being offered have the potential to dramatically increase the adoption of solutions that meet new customer demands, optimize energy costs, and change the way homeowners and businesses manage their assets.