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Green Building Blog

3 Ways to Get the Best Value From Solar

Tue, Mar 25, 2014 @ 03:10 / by Jim Newman

sun with billboard2The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) predicts another growth spurt for 2014. Not surprising, as solar power grew 40% in 2013 and prices keep coming down.

If you’re thinking about jumping on the bandwagon – good for you! Solar is a great investment in the future of our planet. But before you go solar, it is important to be sure you are ready for it. We’ve seen too many companies get all excited about renewable energy and then spend more money than they need to, or not get as much benefit as they could, because the building is not energy efficient. 

When considering adding solar power, or any renewable source of energy for that matter, you first need to reduce the amount of energy your company, building, school, hospital, or industrial park needs for day-to-day operations.

Remember: The least expensive energy is the energy you don’t use in the first place. A proper, professional Energy Audit (an ASHRAE Level II Audit  – or an ASHRAE Building Energy Quotient (bEQ) Label audit – is recommended), can reveal many ways to reduce the amount of energy wasted, and therefore help you make the most of your solar installation.

The numbers prove the value, according to GreenLancer.com, a web-based engineering company that designs solar energy systems in the cloud:

Consider a building located in Michigan that uses 7,500kwh/month, or 90,000kwh/yr. The average electricity cost is around $0.13 per kwh, so the building owner will spend, on average, $1,000 a month on utilities, or $12,000/yr. Because Michigan sees an average of 4.2 Peak Sun Hours per day, this building will require a 77kW solar system to produce the required 7,500kwh/month.  Once installed, the savings will be, on average, $1,000/month, or $12,000/yr.

That same building located in California, where there's an average of 6 Peak Sun Hours per day, would only need a 54kW solar system to offset 100% of the building’s energy consumption. 

In either location, if you reduce the amount of energy the building uses, the savings increase all around. In fact, when you optimize energy efficiency first, you may even find that you can install a smaller renewable energy system – increasing savings even further. Everybody wins!

The three most common energy wasting areas that need addressing are:

  1. Building Envelope:
    Updated windows, improved insulation, better roofing and air sealing can go a long way to reduce the amount of lost energy, not to mention improve the comfort level of building occupants. ASHRAE estimates that just adding a vestibule can save up to 5% of total building energy costs. See this report on vestibules.  
  2. Lighting:
    A lighting update can reduce lighting costs by 20-40%. There are many options today, including compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, LED bulbs, motion sensors and photosensors, and various ways of bringing daylight further into buildings, such as skylights, light tubes and light shelves, so lights can be turned off. Often you can just change the bulb, or make a minor adjustment to the fixture. Consider adding motion sensors to hallways, storage areas and bathrooms -- no need to spend money lighting a space no one is using.

    Note: when replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, remember that CFLs take a little bit of time to reach optimal temperature and brightness. If a CFL is turned on and off frequently before it reaches that temperature, its life will be shortened considerably, thereby losing in replacement costs what it saved in energy costs.
  3. Mechanical Systems:
    Don’t bother providing solar power to HVAC and other mechanical systems that are not running at optimal efficiency. It pays to properly clean coils, replace parts before they fail, and make sure outside air dampers on economizers are in proper working order and not being propped open when they should be able to open and close freely. And these are just a few suggestions. Studies have shown that predictive and preventive maintenance cost much less – up to 50% less – than reactive maintenance. And who needs the downtime caused by breaks in service?

Solar energy has a great future in the US and around the world. It is one of the fastest growing industries, providing jobs and boosting local economies. GreenLancer.com’s CEO Michael Sharber is obviously excited about “the explosive growth solar has been seeing,” noting that “more solar systems were installed in the last 18 months than in the last 30 years.”

To make the most of your solar project, including getting the properly sized equipment, make sure your building envelope is tight, your lighting is appropriate for the space, and your mechanical systems are in their best working order. 

Topics: HVAC, bEQ, solar, ASHRAE, renewable energy, Sustainability, Energy Savings, Energy Audit, energy efficient lighting

Jim Newman

Written by Jim Newman

Jim Newman's passion is helping us move toward a healthier and more secure future – for people and the planet.

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