The DMV’s new office in Fresno became the state’s first zero net energy building since Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012 issued a directive compelling state departments to offset their energy use when they renovate facilities. Juan Esparza Loera Vida en el Valle file photo, 2014
The DMV’s new office in Fresno became the state’s first zero net energy building since Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012 issued a directive compelling state departments to offset their energy use when they renovate facilities. Juan Esparza Loera Vida en el Valle file photo, 2014

The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

The State Worker

Are Jerry Brown’s green state buildings worth their price?

By Adam Ashton

aashton@sacbee.com

November 14, 2017 02:46 PM

UPDATED November 15, 2017 08:04 AM

One of Gov. Jerry Brown’s green-building directives drives up the cost of state construction projects while delivering an uncertain environmental benefit, according to a new study by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The study assessed Brown’s 2012 executive order directing that all state departments design new buildings in such a way that they entirely offset their energy use.

Those so-called “zero net energy” projects tend to include features that limit energy use as well as others that generate power, such as solar panels.

The analysis found that the zero net energy decree adds 17 to 29 percent to the projected cost of some new buildings.

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Meanwhile, the report said, the state’s marquee cap-and-trade program presents a more efficient way for California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without expensive construction mandates.

“We find that a mandate for state buildings to be (zero net energy) is not a necessary or cost-effective way for the state to achieve its (greenhouse gas) reduction goals,” the report said.

The report recommended that state departments conduct a cost-benefit analysis before proceeding with zero net energy projects.

Brown’s executive branch controls about 8,000 state buildings. His order directs departments to plan only zero net energy renovations beginning in 2025, and that half renovations beginning in 2020 represent zero net energy projects.

The Brown administration contends the zero net energy designs will save money over time. A 2015 presentation by the Department of General Services estimated the state could save about $200 million a year in energy costs with the new designs.

“This requirement will help ensure that state buildings consume less power, rely more on clean, renewable energy, and demonstrate California’s leadership in sustainable construction, while maintaining fiscal responsibility,” said Monica Hassan, spokeswoman for the Department of General Services.

California’s approach to reducing the impact of climate change features both mandates that direct businesses to use reneweable sources of energy instead of fossil fuels as well as the cap-and-trade program that makes fossil fuels more expensive by requiring companies to either limit their use or buy pollution credits.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office found that the state has completed nine zero net energy projects since Brown issued his executive order. Another 22 are under development.

The study found that zero net energy features swelled the cost of a Department of Motor Vehicles building in Reedley by 29 percent. The goal added about 17 percent to the cost of a California Lottery building in Santa Fe Springs.

The California Military Department planned to spend $18 million on zero net energy features for a headquarters building in Sacramento. Its proposal included a $5 million thermal storage unit, which would help the building retain heat during warm hours for use at later times.

After a cost-benefit analysis suggested by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Military Department decided to eliminate the thermal storage unit but retain other energy-saving features.

“Analyses that prevent the state from undertaking (zero net energy) projects that are not cost-effective would save state funds that could be used in other ways, whether that is to achieve GHG emission reductions from other projects or other state purposes,” the report said.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at sacbee.com/newsletters.