Oberlin's Adam Joseph Lewis Center not a net-energy exporter, despite claims to the contrary.

John H. Scofield

revised Feb. 17, 2012

In a recent article published in High Performance Buildings, John Petersen provides the scientific basis for the claim that Oberlin College's Adam Joseph Lewis Center (AJLC) is a net-energy exporter - that the building's annual photovoltaic energy production exceeds its annual energy consumption [1]. Earlier in 2007, only 10 months after the second PV array came on-line, Petersen predicted that the two PV arrays would annually generate 10% more energy than the building consumed [2]. The claim that the Lewis Center annually produces more energy than it consumes has appeared on the Oberlin College web site, in the Oberlin College Alumni Magazine, has been frequently repeated by College Administrators, faculty, students, and various news outlets, and is repeated by hundreds if not thousands of web sites. It is an important part of the sustainability cannon.

Sadly, the claim is not supported by the facts. The data clearly show that, in its first 12 [calendar] years of existence, there is not one year in which the AJLC has produced more energy than it consumed -- though it came close in 2007. Before 2006 several studies concluded that its 58-kW rooftop PV array produced less than half the building's annual energy [3, 4]. Since the 2006 installation of the second, 101-kW parking lot PV array, the combined PV arrays have failed to meet the building's annual energy needs. For the four years 2007-2010 the building has, on average consumed at least 9,000 kWh/year more than its PV Arrays produced. Data for 2011 show the energy deficit is greater than 40,000 kWh [5].

Annual AJLC energy -- consumed, generated, and purchased -- are shown in the graph and table below. Building energy consumption figures are those put forward by John Petersen, extracted from his web-based Building Energy Dashboard (http://www.oberlin.edu/ajlc/), selecting the Historic Data tab and choosing Custom Period for each year. Annual photovoltaic energy production data were obtained from Oberlin's municipal electric power company which has metered the AC energy exported to the building since 2001. As the data clearly show, building energy consumption exceeded PV production in every year since the building was constructed.

How then do we understand Petersen's claim put forward in his High Performance Buildings' article? The claim is based on an apples-to-oranges comparison, an all-too-familiar methodology employed in the green building community [6, 7]. Petersen compares the average annual building energy consumption for the period 2002-2010 to the average annual energy production for the period 2007-2010. These averages are highlighted in purple in the table above. Petersen subtracts the 2007-2010 PV production average (134,921 kWh) from the 2001-2010 consumption average
(134,111 kWh) and obtains a negative annual site energy. The intent clearly is to demonstrate that the building produces more energy than it consumes, making it a net-energy exporter [8]. The conclusion is mathematically correct but scientifically irrelevant. Imagine if a business attempted to prove it was operating in the black by demonstrating this year's revenue exceeded last year's expenses. The spin is clever -- but the science is wanting. As the above graph clearly shows, the building's energy consumption has increased over the years. Hence the average annual energy consumed by the building for the nine year period 2002-2010 is lower than the average annually consumed since the second PV array was installed in 2006.

The correct "apples-to-apples" comparison, of course, is the 2007-10 average energy consumption (144,076 kWh) to the 2007-10 average energy production (134,921 kWh) which shows that the building, on average, continues to import 9,200 kWh of grid energy each year. And, as the data for 2011 show, the "trade deficit" is growing. A zero energy building is one that, on an ongoing basis, generates more energy annually than it consumes. It is not one that generates more energy now than it once consumed some time in the past.

Given the 2001-2005 enegy consumption figures for the AJLC and the projected output of its soon-to-be-installed 101-kW parking lot PV array, everyone (including me) believed the energy soon to be provided by the second PV array would make the AJLC a net energy exporter. Why was this not accomplished? There are two reasons. First, the new array has not produced the expected 100,000 kWh per year and has under-performed by about 20%.

Secondly, building energy consumption has steadily risen. Like all buildings, continued expansion of occupant's use of technology leads to larger plug loads. But the biggest contributor to energy consumption has been the poor performance of the geothermal heating system. The well field is under-sized, the building's winter heating and summer cooling are out of balance, and many of its 30-or-so heat pumps are not designed for ground-source operation -- meaning they cannot supply sufficient heat when the ground water temperature falls below 40 deg-F. A large electric boiler remains in the building to supply the heat pumps with warmer water when the ground temperature drops below this threshold. (For an extensive discussion of the mechanical design flaws of this building see my 2002 ASHRAE article.) For the last two winters this building has been heated largely by electricity, not the ground. No doubt Mr. Petersen's extensive energy monitoring system has measured this continuously. Apparently, not all monitoring leads to improved building performance.

Readers who have followed the history of this building and my comments on its design will recall that I used to measure building energy consumption using a second OMLPS electric meter outside the AJLC. Why then, you might ask, do I now rely upon John Petersen's energy consumption data (obtained from Dashboard) instead of the OMLPS building electric meter that used to provide these data?

The answer is as follows. In 2006 (or 2005?), when the AJLC Annex (132 Elm Street) was renovated, the decision was made to disconnect the annex from its old, metered electric feed, and to, instead, feed it electricity from the secondary of the AJLC transformer -- without metering the feed. That is, the OMLPS meter I used to rely on now measures the electricity used by two buildings - the AJLC and the AJLC Annex. Data from this meter are graphed below.

The graph clearly shows that the AJLC Complex (the two combined buildings) have imported an average of 36,000 kWh of electricity per year since 2006. College billing records show that the College purchased 31,000, 30,000, 57,000 kWh, 38,000 kWh, and 70,000 kWh for the AJLC complex for 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 (respectively).

Because the (1) OMLPS billing meter now measures the net flow into and out of the AJLC complex and (2) the electric feed to the AJLC Annex is unmetered there is no longer any meter that directly measures the Lewis Center's energy consumption. The only measure of the Lewis Center's energy consumption is that provided by John Petersen's energy monitoring system. The College has no independent measurement. Petersen obtains his energy consumption data by combining measurements from multiple circuits within the building. Mr. Petersen's monitors do not include energy losses in the building transformer (that connects it to the OMLPS grid) nor any night time losses in the parking lot PV array. Both of these loads are crucial components that must be included in the net-energy flow for the AJLC.

Since the AJLC Annex was renovated to house Mr. Petersen's research lab, including the computer servers that manange his extensive system that monitors energy use in multiple College buildings, it is curious that neither he nor the College saw reason to install a meter on the electric feed to this building. The decision is even more puzzling because Mr. Petersen has a dashboard data collection system installed in the building located in the basement right next to the electric panels which has been used for years to monitor other aspects of the building.

Note that it is inconceivable that 132 Elm St. uses as much as 36,000 kWh of electric energy per year. More likely it has an annual use of 12,000 - 18,000 based on usage by similar houses. About 9,000 kWh per year are lost in the Lewis Center's grid transformer, and the rest provides the AJLC with the energy it cannot provide itself.

To summarize I find that, despite numerous claims to the contrary, Oberlin College's Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies does not generate all of its energy renewably and is not achieved net-zero energy status. The High Performance Buildings paper that presents the case that the building has net negative site energy intensity arrives at this conclusion through specious reasoning, offering clever spin rather than sound scientific reasoning.

2012 Developments


There have been a number of developments since the writing of the above which significantly alter both the AJLC's energy flow and my understanding thereof.

First, in September 2011 the College decided to install an electric meter on the feed to the Lewis Center Annex. This meter was installed and became operational in February 2012. Energy consumed through August cause me to project that the Annex will consume somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 kWh annually, consistent with my expectations (see above).

Second, in October 2011 the College hired a new building manager (Sean Hayes) whose principal task is to identify and solve energy problems at the AJLC, both on the consumption side and the production side. Mr. Hayes has improved the parking lot PV pavilion's output by arranging for replacement of inoperable solar panels and, working with HVAC technicians, he has reduced operation of the ground well pump which has saved significant pump energy.

Third, the winter of 2011-12 was one of the warmest (if not the warmest) in modern history. Because of limitations in the ground-water heat pump system, winter heating is the "Achilles heal" for AJLC energy consumption. Due to the warm winter heating energy was greatly reduced over previous years.

Fouth, during all of 2011 the web-based AJLC energy dashboard published a "solar produced" figure that presumably represented total solar production from the building's PV arrays but which was about 6% larger than that measured by OMLPS. In a Feb. 25, 2011 I asked Mr. Petersen the origin of this energy production figure. He did not provide an answer until November 6. He said his solar produced figure was obtained from his own measurements of pulses coming out of the OMLPS PV meter. I immediately responded to Mr. Petersen that this number was in error and significantly larger than the PV production measured by OMLPS from their monthly readings of that very meter. He seemed genuinely surprised to learn that OMLPS had been reading that meter each month and proceeded to contact OMLPS to gain access to their archived PV data.

In late December Mr. Petersen confirmed that his measurements of PV production were indeed incorrect and that, indeed, in no year had the AJLC's PV arrays produced as much energy as the building had consumed.

At this point it is almost certain that the AJLC's PV arrays will produce more energy than the building consumes for the calender year 2012. 2012 will then be the first calendar year in which the building will be a net energy exporter.

When the electric feed to 132 Elm St. was moved to the secondary of the AJLC transformer this resulted in both the AJLC and its Annex being physically connected to the two PV arrays, giving both buildings equal access to the solar-generated electrons. To say that the parking pavilion PV array, in particular, makes one building a net-energy exporter but not the other raises interesting questions about limitations, if any, on the pairing of buildings and PV arrays. This discussion is beyond the scope of this report and will be taken up in another venue.

I must add one final paragraph about what it means to be a net-energy exporter. It is common for a new start-up company to lose money for a few years and then finally turn in a profit. But corporate profitability, unlike LEED certification, is not a status that once achieved remains permanent. Corporate profitability is determined on an annual basis. A company may operate in the black one year then lose money the next. If one can arbitrarily assign the output of an array to the AJLC (not the Annex) then there is equal validity to do the opposite -- assign it to the Annex rather than the AJLC. By this definition the Annex, not the AJLC, was a ZEB in 2007 and has remained so ever since.

Building energy exports and imports are analogous to corporate profits and losses. A building does not attain the permanent status of being a net-energy exporter. Instead it is assessed on a year by year basis. There are those who fail to understand this -- so they see no problem in claiming the AJLC was a net-energy exporter because this year it will finally achieve that goal. Again, this is not a goal that is achieved once and for all -- it is an annual goal. So, this is analogous to a corporation reporting that it was profitable in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. It discovers that its records were wrong and it was not profitable these years. Then in 2012 it is profitable. There is a major difference between a company that was profitable for each of six consecutive years from one that lost money five years then turned a profit in the sixth year. There is a legal obligation to correct financial records when such errors are discovered. Even more it is a crime to intentionally file false financial records. Achieving the net-energy export status in 2012 in now way erases the false claims for the previous five years.


1. John Petersen, "Early Adopter: Case Study for Oberlin College's Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies," High Peformance Buildings (ASHRAE, Winter 2011).

2. J. E. Petersen, "Production and consumption of electricity in Oberlin College's Lewis Center for Environmental Studies: realizing the goal of a net zero building," Proceedings of the American Solar Energy Society (Cleveland, OH, 2007).

3. J. H. Scofield, "Early energy performance for a green academic building," ASHRAE Transactions, vol. 108, part 2, 1214-1230 (2002).

4. S.Pless and P. Torcellini, "Energy performance evaluation of a low-energy academic building," Conference Paper, NREL/CP-550-38962 (October 2005)

5. The 9,000 kWh/year import average is based on Petersen's building energy consumption data. We know he does not account for the estimated 8,000-10,000 kWh annual losses in the building transformer. The power company's billing meter suggests net import of energy as high as 36,000 kWh per year, depending on the amount annually used by an adjacent house. There is reason to believe Petersen has also omitted energy consumed by in the parking pavilion that supplies much of the building's PV energy from his energy consumption figure.

6. Henry Gifford and others have pointed out that the NBI study of LEED-certified buildings compared the median site energy intensity of LEED buildings to the mean for all US buildings, skewing the comparison.

7. J. H. Scofield, "A re-examination of the NBI LEED Building Energy Consumption Study," Proceedings of the International Energy Program Evaluation Conference (IEPEC), August 12-14, 2009, Portland, OR.

8. Petersen presents energy figures in terms of annual site energy intensity in units kBtu/sf/year. The kWh figures I have provided here are in agreement with his site energy intensity figures once converted to Btu's (1 kWh = 3,416 Btu) and divided by the the 13,600 sf building area.

9. Prior to April 27, 2011 the Dashboard displayed Rooftop Solar and Parking Lot Solar figures that were consistent with OMLPS measurements, but also displayed the undefined quantity Solar Produced that was 10% larger than the sum of the two arrays. The web site was arranged so that a visitor naturally compared Solar Produced with Total Electricity Consumed and concluded that energy production met or exceeded consumption, even though the sum of the enegies produced by the two arrays was less than the energy consumed. I pressed Mr. Petersen to explain this quantity "Solar Produced." He was lothe to do so and, with pressure from the Oberlin College administration, Petersen removed the Solar Produced figure from Dashboard and replaced it with a quantity called PV Production which was equal to the sum of the two arrays and consistent with OMLPS measurements. These numbers remained posted on Dashboard until late September when they again changed.