A variety of financial assistance is available to help offset the costs of converting your facility’s power. Follow these tips when considering whether solar is right for you.
Located in Orlando, Fla., the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) sports the largest rooftop solar panel system in the southeastern United States.
“[A few] years ago, our energy costs went up 18 percent. We were alarmed,” recalls Jerry Daigle, then-deputy general manager at the center who oversaw the system’s installation. “We always had the desire to do some environmentally sound projects, but our primary interest from the facilities group was lowering operating costs.”
Following the installation, the OCCC’s solar panel system absorbed up to 10 percent of energy costs — a success, given the seven-million-square-foot center’s massive energy usage.
In addition to the energy cost savings, the OCCC project also demonstrates the array of assistance available to facilities looking to convert to solar energy. The OCCC’s 5,808-panel installation cost $7.5 million, $2.5 million of which came from a state grant. The Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC) pitched in another $1.5 million, and the Florida Solar Energy Center helped write the technical specifications. This assistance helped make the solar panel systems an affordable reality.
Benefits of Solar Energy
The use of solar energy does more than reduce greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the environment. Many facilities managers have turned to solar power as a means of curbing future operating costs. After all the incentives the OCCC received, the system should pay for itself within 14 years of installation, Daigle says.
Immediate gains range from lowered utility bills to tax write-offs. In addition, solar energy functions as a hedge against future increases in energy costs and can be designed to provide backup power during utility outages.
Funding Your Solar Energy System
Installing a system isn’t cheap, but the cost can be offset by tax credits, federal grants, rebates and incentives through utilities companies. “The key is to tap into all those incentives,” says Neil Kaminar, author of two books on solar energy systems, “With the right incentives, the payback period can be five to eight years.”
If your state doesn’t offer incentives, Kaminar recommends working with the local utility and state authorities to improve the situation. Building improvement loans and low-interest loans through the government or utility company are funding options. Otherwise, you can lease the system through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), which enables providers to fund the analysis and installation — lowering your utilities bills at a much slower rate.
Consider these factors when implementing a solar panel system:
- Array location: “An often overlooked consideration is that the area for the array must be free of shadows,” Kaminar says. “Even a small shadow can significantly reduce the output of an array.”
- Audits: An energy audit, a site survey, array sizing, placement options, equipment selection and cost estimates are crucial to getting the most out of your system. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory helps facilities calculate their energy analysis through its website, nrel.gov.
- Module selection: High-efficiency solar modules made from crystalline are the prevalent technology in use. They’re much more energy-efficient and require less space than other modules, which make them more accessible to the majority of buildings. But they’re also more expensive to install.
- Structural considerations: Facilities managers might consider hiring a structural engineer who is familiar with the local code requirements. Wind, snow and seismic loads have to be considered, and the roof may need to be repaired or replaced for optimal installation and savings.
- Climate: You don’t have to live in the Sun Belt to benefit from solar power. But, in cloudy climates or foggy, coastal environments, the benefits may not exceed the cost of installation.
- Electrical room: Be sure there’s enough space to house any inverters and electrical control cabinets. Hire an electrical engineer to determine what electrical equipment is required.
- Maintenance: Solar energy systems generally require little maintenance, but dirt and dust can reduce their efficacy. If you live in a dry, dusty or polluted environment, the modules could require hosing off every week to operate at full capacity.
- Net metering: In most states, electric meters can be set up to spin forward or backward, depending upon the amount of energy intake or output. Any power generated by solar panels that exceeds demand may be sent back into the power grid, further reducing your bill.
- Thermal power: Electricity isn’t the only way to harness the sun’s power. Consider a thermal solar system if your company relies on processing hot water or other fluids.
- Manufacturer: Not all manufacturers have the same reputation. Although many offer 20-year warranties on their panels, the OCCC team chose a contractor that also guaranteed a minimum of savings.
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