San Francisco’s groundbreaking science center becomes the largest net zero energy museum in the U.S., if not the world
SAN FRANCISCO (November 13, 2023) – The Exploratorium is proud to announce that it is officially a Net Zero Energy building, achieving its goal of becoming the largest net zero energy use museum in the U.S., if not the world. Opening along San Francisco’s waterfront in 2013 as one of the greenest buildings of its time, the Exploratorium now generates as much or more energy than it uses on an annual basis at its 220,000-square foot headquarters at Pier 15.
“As a global leader in science learning, we’re proud to model the innovation and resiliency needed to create a more sustainable world,” said Lindsay Bierman, the Exploratorium’s Sakurako and William Fisher Executive Director and CEO. “At Pier 15, we have a literal front row seat to sea level rise and climate change. We’re committed to being the best environmental stewards we can be through our energy efficiency efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and our climate science exhibits and programs that empower visitors to care for our planet.”
Designed by San Francisco architectural firm EHDD, every building system – from electrical to lighting to ventilation – was designed to be the most energy efficient as possible at that time. The Exploratorium was awarded LEED Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2014 and is the largest museum to date to be Zero Energy Verified by the New Buildings Institute.
Careful monitoring and management of those systems by building operations staff, as well as employee support and engagement in best practices, has been instrumental in maintaining net zero energy operations.
“This achievement is a reminder that net zero energy is a living goal,” said Brad Jacobson, a Principal at EHDD. “EHDD and our design and build partners set the Exploratorium up for success, but it was their staff who realized that success through dedication to the mission over time. The urgency for climate action has only grown since the Exploratorium opened their doors more than a decade ago. Now, every visitor will see that we can achieve climate balance without sacrificing joy, wonder, or beauty.”
The Exploratorium uses a 1.3-megawatt SunPower solar power system, featuring 5,874 high-efficiency solar panels on its rooftop, to offset its electricity demands. In addition to generating renewable energy on-site, the museum’s low-energy design strategies include:
- A Bay Water Heating and Cooling system for geothermal exchange, which controls the building’s temperature without the need for a cooling tower or boiler. This saves more than two million gallons of potable water a year and also allows the Exploratorium to be all-electric.
- Insulated glass windows with fritted or low-emissivity glass, which improves the building envelope and reduces solar heat gain. This helps save energy and optimize the performance of building systems.
- Carefully controlled zones for lighting and power to ensure the museum only uses electricity when and where it’s needed most.
- Replacing lighting systems with LED upgrades, which saves energy at the fixture level and also generates less heat than traditional light fixtures, thus reducing demand (and energy usage) on cooling systems.
- Using daylighting to harvest natural light in staff spaces and selected galleries to reduce the need to use electric lighting.
- An energy efficient displacement ventilation system to deliver fresh air at the occupant level. This system uses natural convection to move the air instead of traditional forced air design.
Since opening in 2013 at Pier 15, 85 percent of the total energy use of the building has been provided by onsite renewable solar energy. That’s a reduction of 16,186 tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of 3,268 passenger cars, and represents enough electricity to power 286 homes over the past decade.
“Cultural institutions have a mission-driven responsibility to limit negative impacts while modeling thoughtful, responsible behavior,” said Mischa Egolf, technical associate at the New Buildings Institute, a partner of the Culture Over Carbon project. “Cultural institutions like the Exploratorium that commit to minimizing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to the well-being of the communities they serve, especially given the unique challenges cultural institutions face.”
“This achievement is the culmination of our dedication to be as energy efficient as possible over the last 10 years, and we’re thrilled to invite visitors to see our sustainability efforts in action,” said Laura Zander, the Exploratorium’s Chief Financial and Operating Officer. “The next time you’re at the Exploratorium, we encourage you to look beyond our exhibits on the floor and look at the color of our walls – that’s a sustainability choice. Look up at the big vents. Walk by our Bay Water room and see how we’re pumping water and using that to heat and cool the museum. Our building is an exhibit in and of itself – and it’s amazing.”