Key Factors to Consider in Creating “Better Buildings” with Solar Energy

Predictability is vital to a successful enterprise. Knowing what to expect and having time to prepare to meet these future challenges are key components to making your company competitive. When you’re in the business of property or facilities management, though, predictability often hinges on the weather—and in New York, we know the forecast often feels more like speculation than calculation. So, given the mercurial climate in the Northeast, how can your organization develop best practices to reduce costs and even add new value to the buildings you manage? To find the answer, look up. Your roof is a secret asset that, if used properly, will set your service apart.

First, let’s get a sense of the scope of the problem. According to renowned data scientist Nate Silver, New York has less predictable weather, both in terms of temperature and precipitation, than much of the US. This volatility has real consequences for your bottom line, because the cost of electricity is intimately tied to the weather: spikes or dips in temperature send people scrambling to their thermostat, ultimately driving up demand and contributing to seasonal peak loads, when electricity is most expensive. Since heating and cooling comprise around 40% of electric consumption in commercial buildings, and since this consumption is concentrated during periods of higher rates, property owners and managers should not ignore the financial implications of the weather. What’s more, research shows that the climate is becoming less predictable, a trend that began in the 1970s and is unlikely to stop without significant sustained action. As this problem gets worse, there’s a creative solution that can mitigate the summer highs and winter lows, and the costs that come with them.

Solar Energy Gets Commercial Buildings Going in the Right Direction

Simply installing solar panels atop your facility, disregarding the power they generate, can help stabilize the internal temperature of a building. A study out of the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering suggests a solar PV system will keep a building 5 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than an exposed roof in the summer and act like a blanket at night and in the winter to keep heat trapped. That means less air conditioning, less heating, and lower utility bills for you, particularly during months with seasonal peaks. The Aberdeen Group identifies a 10% reduction in energy consumption as an indicator of “best-in-class” facilities management; and installing solar will put you well on your way to achieving this goal. The best part is that you’ll get this benefit even if you’re not the “offtaker,” or the one receiving the solar energy.

Now, you’re probably wondering what happens to the power generated by these solar panels if it’s not being consumed on-site, or “behind-the-meter.” There are two possibilities, Remote Net Metering (RNM) and Community Solar, which both supply the solar energy produced on these rooftop farms to offtakers located elsewhere. The main difference between the two is the number of offtakers, where RNM has 1 and Community must have at least 10 in NY. Remote rooftop solar farms all have a separate dedicated meter from the building’s, so the utility company can measure the electricity produced at the host location and apply credits to the offtaker accounts just like they would with a ground-mounted solar farm in a field, without affecting the host building’s service at all. These arrangements allow consumers and businesses who can’t install on their own property, either because they don’t have enough space, have poor sun exposure, or rent, to still make the switch to clean, renewable energy.

For hosting their system, you’ll generally earn a signing bonus and residual lease payments for the next twenty years. Under this model, you’ve not only reduced expenditures but also opened a new line of passive revenue. Depending on the developer you’re working with, there a few criteria to qualify your roof to host a solar farm. The most important of these, unsurprisingly, is size. At minimum, a flat roof needs to be 20,000 square feet to support a substantial solar installation, but anything over 75,000 square feet is preferred. The roof material is another deciding factor, with standing seam metal roofs as the gold standard. Most types of roofing will work, but EPDM roofs on a tilt are an automatic no-go. Then there are more solar-specific considerations, like the amount of shade it receives, its tilt and azimuth, and the availability and suitability of the local utility grid. The solar developer you work with should always survey the age and quality of your roof in coordination with a structural engineer to ensure the building can support the additional weight. If your roof passes muster, you have a money-making machine on top of your building that you didn’t even know existed! The only work you’ll have to do is sign the lease agreement.

There are numerous other benefits to installing solar on your roof, even if you’re not the one receiving the power. First and foremost, you’re contributing to a renewable energy future, which will improve our society’s overall health, resilience, and economy, reduce our reliance on foreign fossil fuels, and help New York State reach its ambitious goal of supplying 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. You can also capitalize on changing market values, in which consumers seek out companies that prioritize environmental stewardship. Regardless the reason, solar is a smart decision for any property owner or facilities manager.

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