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Reducing the electric bill for the world's largest building

By Bernard Choi

The toughest part about Chris Roe's job also makes his assignment very easy.

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BOEING PHOTO BY Bernard Choi

Boeing engineer Chris Roe points to a pilot project to turn off lamps near skylights in the Everett, Wash. factory.

The Boeing engineer is charged with reducing energy use at a sprawling site that includes the world's largest building by volume.

"Sometimes it's hard to know which part of the cookie to bite off first," said Roe, who holds a master's degree in sustainable development. "But the good thing is, there's always a new opportunity wherever you turn. Different buildings, different systems, there's always a way to save energy here."

About 30 minutes north of Seattle, the Boeing complex in Everett, Wash., covers 1,025 acres (415 hectares). The site's main factory - where machinists build Boeing's twin-aisle jets - encloses 472 million cubic feet of space (13.3 million cubic meters).

The Everett operation saved three million kilowatt hours of energy in 2009 -- enough to power 270 U.S. homes for one year.

At this scale, saving a little can save a lot.

Recently, Roe and the team targeted the 5,000 overhead lamps in the main factory; many happen to be near skylights in the ceiling.

"We had a lot of employee feedback: 'We see a lot of natural light. Why are the lights still burning?'" said Roe.

The solution, as shown in the video above, was to attach light-sensitive switches to the fixtures so the lamps turn off during the day.

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BOEING PHOTO BY Bernard Choi

It costs millions to power the giant factory where Boeing produces twin-aisle airplanes like the new 747-8.

The same idea was applied to another pilot program inside a parking garage. Now, the lights stay dim until motion triggers a sensor.

"Before, the lights were on 24/7 at 200 watts. Now at nighttime, when most of the cars are gone, it's just a 17-watt bulb. So it's a significant savings from 200 to 17," said Roe.

These and other ideas helped the Everett operation save three million kilowatt hours of energy in 2009 -- enough to power 270 U.S. homes for one year. Across the Boeing Company, the 2009 savings totaled 10 million kilowatt hours.

This is part of a company-wide effort at Boeing to meet a series of aggressive environmental targets. Among the goals and priorities outlined in the Boeing 2010 Environment Report:

"We seek opportunities that are a double-win -- that save money and help the environment," said Roe.

To be sure, not all ideas pan out. Earlier this year, the Everett team installed gears in two escalators to try to save electricity. The numbers came back and the reduction was minimal. But for Roe, it's about taking little steps toward a larger goal.

"I'm in this role because I'm invested in trying to reduce our consumption and save our natural resources. What I care about personally is what I get to do professionally," said Roe.