Capturing the Sun: Solar Power Investments Can Offer Long-Term Savings in Energy Costs

Article excerpt

Once considered a new-age fad or architectural eyesore, solar power is now a promising alternative energy source fueling great enthusiasm in the green building movement. In fact, solar energy has become a multibillion dollar industry, growing at 40 percent or more every year, according to the American Solar Energy Society (ASES).

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While solar powered properties are far from the norm, real estate owners and managers looking to keep energy costs down might consider weighing the advantages of such systems against the hefty upfront cost of installation.

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SUNNY FORECAST

The most common solar technology for commercial and residential buildings is solar electric technology--also referred to as photovoltaic. Photovoltaic technology uses solar panels, typically placed on rooftops or mounted in the ground, to convert sunlight into direct current electricity.

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That electricity passes through an inverter, converts into an alternating current, and then moves to a breaker box, providing an interconnection point to the consumer or grid. The electricity is then transferred into power for a property's electricity needs, just like standard electric power.

Power is still transmitted through wall outlets like in typical properties, and lighting systems still turn on and off the same way. In fact, solar electric power typically just offsets the amount of electricity needed from standard sources--so properties don't go without power at night or on a bleak day.

As a result, solar power can work in just about any geographic location. According to ASES, the national leaders for solar power are California, New Jersey and Colorado, with California claiming close to two-thirds of all U.S. solar installations. The number one country for solar energy is Germany, which has the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska.

"If Germany can do it, clearly any state in the U.S. can do it," said Neal Lurie, spokesman for ASES. "There is no question that with perfectly sunny skies you'll produce more energy. But, even on a cloudy day in Chicago, you'll generate energy using that same amount of sunlight that allows you to differentiate between day and night."

Most solar properties are looking to offset about 10 to 30 percent of their energy usage with solar power. At Wayne National Forest headquarters near Nelsonville, Ohio, the energy collected from its 302-panel, 60,000-kilowatt rooftop solar system is expected to generate 30 to 34 percent of the building's electricity during the sunniest months, and an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the facility's energy needs annually.

It is possible to conserve even more energy, though. The Peter A. and Vernice H. Gasser Foundation, in Napa, Calif., has a 125-kilowatt system atop a carport, as well as on the roof of its 22,000-square-foot office building. The property's solar system has allowed the Gasser Foundation to offset 90 percent of its energy consumption from the electric grid.

"If you do a solar installation and you're only getting 3 to 5 percent of [your] energy use out of it, I don't think that's really enough," said Nicholas E. Stolatis, CPM[R], RPA, director of strategic initiatives asset management for Global Real Estate at TIAA-CREF in New York.

RETROFITS: SIMPLE BUT COMPLICATED

Geography aside, the energy savings properties experience from installing a solar power system also hinges on the level to which a building is retrofitted.

Solar electric technology and solar hot water technology are two common solar retrofits--both typically involving rooftop solar panels. Solar electric technology is intended to offset a building's electric bill, whereas solar hot water technology offsets a building's natural gas bill.

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Mike Hall, CEO of Borrego Solar Systems Inc. …