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Net-zero federal lab set to open in Colorado in 2026 thanks to Inflation Reduction Act

A new, all-electric Food and Drug Administration lab will be funded through $79 million from the Inflation Reduction Act.
A rendering of the all-electric Food and Drug Administration lab, set to open in 2026, features large glass windows on the west side to bring in sunlight. (Courtesy of U.S. General Services Administration, Rocky Mountain Region)

When construction is complete, the new all-electric facility in Lakewood aims to be net-zero, releasing no new emissions into the atmosphere.

But the new Food and Drug Administration lab has a secondary mission: To prove that cost-effective and energy efficient buildings can house serious scientific activities without risk of losing crucial research. Like hospitals, labs run 24/7, 365 days a year.

“You can’t shut the power off and shut the experiments down or the testing that they’re doing,” said Daniel Nikolich, project manager for the new FDA lab at the Denver Federal Center. “But you can be more efficient in the way that you use the energy.”

Funded through $79 million from a federal climate change and health care law, the new lab is part of the U.S. General Services Administration’s first batch of projects that looks to boost clean energy innovation by using energy-saving technologies and materials that minimize carbon emissions in construction and renovation projects at federal facilities. The administration owns more than 411,000 buildings across the country, including research and judicial complexes in Boulder and Denver.

The GSA estimates that its first round of clean energy projects, totaling more than $300 million from the Inflation Reduction Act, will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 12,000 metric tons, which is equivalent to the emissions created by more than 25,000 cars in one year and reduce energy costs by $35 million over the next 20 years.

The project works toward President Joe Biden’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions from federal buildings by 2045.

“It’s great to see the federal government leading by example,” said Nissa Erickson, an associate at Boulder-based Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. “Using IRA funds to help pay for the state-of-the-art HVAC systems in this new lab makes a lot of sense. It’s important to demonstrate all-electric, net-zero energy buildings of many different types, commercial and residential. Moving to highly efficient, all-electric buildings will be essential to protect our climate – and it can save us money too.”

The new 70,000-square-foot Food and Drug Administration lab, which is set to open in 2026, will be decked with solar panels and other ways to offset power generated by coal or natural gas and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The three-story building will replace a building that was built as a munitions factory during World War II. The FDA moved into the nearly windowless two-story building at the Denver Federal Center in 1987, after it was modified into a lab.

The new lab will be built with glass on the south and west sides of the building to bring in sunlight, Nikolich said. The north and east sides will have less glass to help provide for better thermal insulation, he said.

To offset the energy used in heating and cooling the building, the lab will recapture energy as it leaves the building and put it back, using runaround loops, ground-source heat pumps and other technologies.

The building design and construction, a combination of steel and concrete, will help the lab use half the amount of energy a typical lab uses, Nikolich said. For perspective, a typical lab uses about 10 times as much energy as an office building of a similar size.

The FDA lab in Denver performs tests on a wide range of food for humans and animals, cosmetics and dietary-supplements and specializes in testing for food allergies and DNA fish barcoding, among other analyses.

The lab will still rely on a generator in the case of a power outage, but due to “fairly stable” power in Denver, Nikolich said he doesn’t expect it to be used often.

“We’re proud of the fact that it is going to be our first net-zero lab in the country,” said G.W. Emge, director of design and construction for GSA’s Rocky Mountain region.

The energy efficiency will save the FDA money that would otherwise be spent to heat, cool and light the building.

“Every dollar they have to spend on energy is a dollar they can’t spend on their research,” he said. “So it’s kind of a win-win in that respect.”

Construction on the lab is set to start within the next year. It will be built on what is now a parking lot, south of the existing building.

The project also falls in line with a lofty goal proposed by some Colorado lawmakers to remove all carbon emissions by 2050. Senate Bill 16, which would also set tough interim goals for greenhouse gas reduction and try again for a 30% tax credit for clean electric lawn and garden equipment, is on the table in the legislature this year.

Nonprofit clean energy analysis group RMI hopes the push to build an all-electric, net-zero lab serves as a model for other facilities to adopt.

“Facilities like the Denver Federal Center can be difficult to electrify and decarbonize due to their high process and ventilation loads,” said Lucas Toffoli, on the group’s Carbon-Free Building program. “So, we hope the integrated efficiency, energy recovery, and renewable energy strategies they’re using will provide a helpful model for high-performance lab build-outs across the U.S.”

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