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Sonia Punjabi

Architect researches development of energy-efficient and net zero-energy buildings

Sonia Punjabi

Sonia Punjabi researches ways to implement and define energy-efficient and zero-energy buildings in the U.S. Department of Energy Building Technologies Office. (Photo credit Manasi Kashyap)

A building with zero net-energy consumption may seem to be an impossible feat, but Sonia Punjabi, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) participant in the Building Technologies Office (BTO) research participation program, hopes to make this exciting concept more commonplace in today's building industry.

For Punjabi, who holds a Master of Science in architecture from Texas A&M University, being selected as a DOE-EERE program participant provided her with an opportunity to apply more than eight years of technical experience in commercial building sustainability and energy efficiency to the DOE Commercial Buildings Integration (CBI) program. The CBI program works with the commercial building industry to improve energy efficiency in existing buildings and develop cost-effective technologies for the construction of new, high-performance and zero energy buildings (ZEBs).

To be defined as zero energy, a building must have zero net-energy consumption, which means that the actual annual energy consumed by the building must be balanced by on-site renewable energy such as solar and wind-powered electricity. ZEB technologies, such as the use of solar water heating and superinsulation techniques, have tremendous potential to transform the way buildings use and conserve energy, but an industry-accepted ZEB definition is essential to government, utility, and private efforts to recognize ZEBs and provide incentives. Punjabi hopes that the establishment of methods, strategies and incentives for ZEBs and other energy-efficient technologies will make them a more common part of the architectural landscape.

The objective of the DOE-EERE research participation program is to provide unique education and training opportunities for up-and-coming scientists and engineers to pursue advanced technologies in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Punjabi's position was administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), which is managed by ORAU for DOE, and she was mentored by Arah Schuur, CBI program manager.

The main purpose of Punjabi's research was the development of energy-efficient building technologies and policies. She helped lead the Commercial New Construction and Major Retrofits portfolio for the CBI. She also spearheaded research and development for industry-accepted national definitions, guidelines and metrics for zero energy commercial buildings, campuses, portfolios and communities.

Through her research at the BTO, Punjabi was also a part of technical projects developed by national laboratories, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). With NREL, Punjabi provided leadership and support for two published projects: Industry Research and Recommendations for New Commercial Buildings and Cost Control Strategies for Zero Energy Buildings: High-Performance Design and Construction on a Budget. With NREL and LBNL, Punjabi assisted in the management of a pilot program to explore ISO 50001 (Energy Management System Standard) implementation in commercial buildings.

Punjabi was also involved in management and support of the ASHRAE 189.1 Standard for the Design of High-Performance Green Buildings, which provides guidance for green building design, construction and operation; the ASHRAE Advanced Energy Design Guides and the DOE Advanced Energy Retrofit Guides.

Through her participation in the DOE-EERE research participation program, Punjabi collaborated with technical experts from many national laboratories and felt she was able to more directly influence the building industry. For Punjabi, these aspects were the most exciting part of the program. The program also provided her with a wealth of firsthand experience in energy policy and technologies and allowed her to "create national impact."

In the future, Punjabi hopes to become a prominent leader in energy efficiency and sustainability. "I am currently looking for my next challenge," she said, "one that will help me to continually hone my technical abilities and mature as a professional."