Creating “Better Buildings” With Solar Energy

A program of the U.S. Department of Energy, the Better Buildings Initiative partners with organizations to facilitate and track energy improvements.

Contributed by U.S. Department of Energy Better Buildings Initiative
From the June 2017 Issue

While renewable energy can be a costly capital investment, businesses and organizations are opening up their wallets to secure more reliable and affordable sources of energy for their buildings and facilities. Solar energy has seen dramatic reductions in cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of energy produced over the past few years, and with solar energy’s levelized cost of electricity down from 27 cents in 2010 to seven cents in 2016, solar power has grown into an attractive energy option.

solar energy
The solar energy system at the Super 8 hotel in Ukiah, CA is a significant part of the owner’s sustainability efforts. The property has earned ENERGY STAR certification from 2011-2017, most recently scoring 92. (Photo: Better Buildings Initiative)

As more companies and organizations see the successes of their efforts to reduce the energy used within their buildings and plants (upgrading lighting, water heating, and space conditioning systems, with more efficient options), they are looking at what’s next. And often, that’s when renewables come in as a viable option to supplement energy needs and enhance the energy performance of commercial buildings, industrial plants, or education facilities.

Through the Better Buildings Initiative, the U.S. Department of Energy is working across industries to provide guidance and to document effective approaches for installing renewable technologies including solar, wind, and geothermal. The following partner proven strategies focus on solar energy projects—highlighting how renewables can offset energy costs and provide clean, domestic power.

Solar Energy Gets Retail Facilities Going

As businesses nationwide continue to enhance their sustainability efforts, a few retailers stand out for taking on renewable energy options at their facilities.

For companies like Best Buy, taking advantage of its high solar insolation and energy conservation potential proved a cost savings of 25% over the course of four years at its franchise in Richfield, MN. Best Buy went further in its energy reduction efforts by installing prismatic skylights and a dimmable fluorescent lighting system to harvest daylight, which helped the company reduce lighting energy by 45% in the store.

In Bushnell, FL, Suncoast Credit Union upgraded its Bushnell Service Center with solar electric systems in 2013, and after its first year of operation, that service center delivered over 31 megawatt-hours (MWh) to the grid and used 25 MWh, exceeding its expectations to become a zero-energy building. Over the past few years, Suncoast has become increasingly active in a number of different environmental efforts.

At Super 8 in Ukiah, CA, the hotel installed a rooftop 48.5 kilowatt (kW) solar system in 2015, and by 2016 that energy source provides 60% of the electric power and 100% of the hotel’s hot water production for the guestrooms and the hot tub.

In 2011, commercial developer Regency Centers partnered with Trader Joe’s to install a 253 kW rooftop solar system at Regency Shops of Saugus center in Saugus, MA. Regency owns, maintains and operates the system and sells 100% of the power to Trader Joe’s at a discount to utility prices. Trader Joe’s is able to offset approximately 65% of its total electricity use with solar power.

Industrial Facilities Increase Plant Efficiency

Schneider Electric and Cummins are two manufacturers that have implemented solar energy to support plants in Smyrna, TN and Lakewood, NY, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in operational costs at each of these respective facilities.

At Schneider Electric’s Smyrna plant, the company completed construction of a 1 megawatt (MW) solar photovoltaic (PV) farm specially designed to allow operational voltage to be configured for either 600V or 1,000V, which helps Schneider use 40% fewer parallel connections and reduces the fraction of energy lost to resistance through the higher voltages. The plant has seen a 19% net energy use reduction coming from the solar project implemented in 2013.

Cummins’ Jamestown Engine Plant in 2014 installed a 2 MW solar installation capable of generating about a third of the plant’s power on the sunniest days as a part of a major energy system overhaul which resulted in $1.4 million a year in costs savings.

Zero Energy Schools Fueled By Renewable Power

Discovery Elementary School opened in 2015 as one of the first Zero Energy schools on the East Coast of the United States. As the first new elementary school built in 11 years by the Arlington County Public Schools district the 97,588 square foot facility accommodated a growing district while operating at a 66% lower energy use intensity (EUI) compared to the district’s average.

The elementary school installed 1,700 PV panels on its roof, totaling nearly 500 kW of peak power production that helps offset all of the school’s electricity use. The initial return on investment is seven years and estimated to earn a 6.3% annualized return over 20 years. The panels will produce approximately 616,194 kWh annually.

Financing Tools

Limited financing options are often cited as a major barrier to investing in energy efficient systems. In January 2017, the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Financing Navigator was introduced to facilitate project financing for building owners, facility and energy managers, and other decision-makers. The web-based tool helps private and public sector organizations evaluate and discover financing solutions by connecting them with financiers, including banks and financial institutions.

The Financing Navigator covers efficiency projects of all sizes in all non-residential building types. It was developed in consultation with industry leaders, including the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Environmental Defense Fund, Metrus Energy, the Institute for Market Transformation, and others.

An initiative of U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Better Buildings is designed to drive leadership in energy innovation. Through the initiative, DOE partners with leaders in the public and private sectors to make the nation’s homes, commercial buildings and industrial plants more energy efficient by accelerating investment and sharing successful best practices.

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