Beyond the Threshold of Adoption

Cart your purchases out to the parking lot at the new Leavenworth, Kansas, Walmart after dark and you will be rolling into a high-efficiency lighting research lab. Since the store opened last summer, this patch of asphalt has been a test site that could help advance renewable energy one step closer to the mainstream

Working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Net-Zero Energy Commercial Building Initiative, Walmart has equipped the store with energy-thrifty light-emitting diode (LED) luminaires in place of conventional metal halide lamps. If the trial delivers an attractive return on investment, Walmart could install LEDs outside all of its stores–and spark imitation among its peers in big-box retailing.

In tracing the connection from the LEDs of Leavenworth to the future of renewable energy, it is helpful to remember one cold truth: There is nothing inevitable about the adoption of a new technology. Whatever its virtues, if the market cannot see how to apply it in real life, chances are that costs will stay high and the technology will stay on the shelf. The only way to get an innovation over the adoption threshold may be to encourage a trial run by a big name.

This is where DOE comes in. Since 2007, one of the drivers of DOE’s Commercial Buildings Program has been the Commercial Building Initiative. Moving energy saving measures past the adoption threshold is critical to moving the United States nearer to the goal of the Initiative: the creation of market-viable net-zero energy commercial buildings.

DOE encourages widespread adoption of breakthrough technologies by collaborating with key stakeholders in the commercial building market. The Commercial Building Initiative provides support for research, development and demonstration activities that reduce these technologies’ technical barriers and perceived risks. In doing so, DOE aims to improve whole-building energy performance by 70 percent in new construction, when the convergence of efficiency and renewables is most practical for net-zero energy buildings. It has similarly aggressive targets for existing buildings.

Success in a high-profile demonstration like the Walmart project could position LEDs as an element of competitive advantage. Once Walmart has broken a trail, other retailers will be more inclined to adopt LEDs and that inclination will ratchet the state of the art–and the market–closer to practical net-zero energy commercial buildings.

The Leavenworth experiment illustrates just one facet of DOE’s market engagement strategy, which accelerates the adoption of new technologies through public-private partnerships with the commercial sector. Among the building blocks of DOE’s Commercial Building Initiative are two activities: Commercial Building Partnerships and Commercial Building Energy Alliances. These efforts encourage commercial building owners and operators to leverage DOE resources in developing a new national building stock based on clean domestic energy assets with low operating costs.

Commercial Building Partners conduct cost-shared research, development and deployment of advanced technologies and best practices to achieve unprecedented energy savings in new and retrofit projects in their building portfolio. The operational and cost data that these projects generate are valuable, since this information supports the business case for investment in high-performance buildings. The intent is for the partners and others with similar buildings to replicate cost-effective energy efficiency improvements throughout their building stock based on these demonstration projects.

Commercial Building Energy Alliances link commercial building owners, managers and operators in various business sectors with technologies, analytical tools and capabilities that emerge from DOE and its national laboratories. Each alliance develops best practices, guidelines and other assets for its industry. So far, DOE has launched the Retailer Energy Alliance, Commercial Real Estate Energy Alliance and Hospital Energy Alliance and plans to launch the Higher Education Energy Alliance and Government Energy Alliance later this year.

The Walmart parking lot project is the first site to comply with Commercial Building Energy Alliance lighting specifications. An alliance working group collaborated with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in developing the specifications and presenting them to manufacturers, while the DOE Solid-State Lighting Program lent technical assistance and is helping to monitor the results.

Working with DOE in these interlocking alliances and partnerships, building owners and operators of all kinds are helping to speed breakthrough technologies from the labs to the market, while expanding the understanding of what design tools, technologies and practices are needed to reach the aggressive goals of the Commercial Building Initiative.

And that is making the future of renewable energy–like the Leavenworth lighting project–a lot brighter.

Brian Holuj is a commercial buildings specialist in the Office of Building Technologies at the U.S. Department of Energy. He may be reached at

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