Last summer, the U.S. government announced a commitment to increasing its share of renewable energy to 20 percent by 2030. The plan is expected to cut carbon emissions in an effort to combat global climate change.
What will this initiative mean for commercial property managers? Certainly, it’s hard to predict exactly without knowing the results of the upcoming presidential election. However, chances are very good that government renewable energy incentives—such as the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) that is coming up for renewal at the end of this year—will continue to be available for commercial projects.
What is renewable energy?
Renewable energy refers to any energy source that restores itself in a relatively short period of time without being depleted. Most people equate renewable with “environmentally friendly,” but that is not always the case. For example, inefficiently burned wood may be renewable, but it can be a significant source of air pollution. With that said, many renewable energy sources are environmentally preferable to fossil fuels in the long run.
Commercial property managers can benefit in many ways from installing renewable energy sources. Many renewable energy systems have become financially competitive and can help a company realize significant savings over time. On-site renewable energy can also serve as insurance against grid failure—and the public relations value can’t be denied.
Renewable energy options for commercial property managers
Property managers interested in exploring renewable energy for their commercial properties have plenty of choices. Before investing in a renewable energy system, it makes sense to review the options to see which would make sense for a particular property.
By now, most people are familiar with the concept of solar power; however, it’s good to remember that photovoltaic (electricity-generating) panels are not the only solar option.
For properties that use a lot of hot water, a solar water heater can sometimes provide a better ROI. Don’t forget that passive solar counts, too. Skylights and solar lighting tubes can pay back quickly by reducing lighting costs while making the indoor environment more user-friendly. If you are building a new facility, passive solar design can vastly reduce your heating and lighting costs over the life of the building.
If you are located in an area with sufficient wind, installing a turbine can be an excellent choice as long as you have the space and it’s permitted within the zoning requirements. However, don’t assume you need to install a huge turbine. Small wind is feasible in some situations—like the turbine recently installed on the Eiffel Tower.
Biomass and biofuels
Biomass energy refers to any non-fossil organic material that is used as fuel. Common biomass fuel sources include wood, agricultural waste and municipal waste. Biomass can also be refined to create liquid or gaseous fuels such as ethanol and methane gas. Commercial operations that produce significant amounts of organic waste are often good candidates for a biomass energy system. For example, many dairy farms are now installing methane digesters to collect usable gas from cow manure.
Geothermal and heat pump energy
True geothermal refers to energy harvested from hot spots in the earth’s crust. Unless you live in Greenland, chances are this option will not be available to you. However, many companies do make use of something called a geothermal heat pump, which is what most people mean when they say they are using geothermal heat.
A heat pump transfers heat energy from a warmer area to a cooler one. In the case of a geothermal heat pump, you’re taking heat from the earth and pumping it into your building. You can also use heat pumps for cooling purposes. For example, there is technology that uses cold outside air to cool refrigerated spaces for businesses that run commercial refrigeration. One building owner who incorporated this technology saved thousands of dollars last winter by using it to cool a 400,000-cubic-foot cooler from December 2013 to March 2014.
Keep in mind that heat pumps don’t generate truly renewable energy on their own. They do require an outside energy input to run the pump. They simply make more efficient use of the energy than using it to heat a space directly. However, heat pumps can be used in conjunction with renewable energy sources for a purely renewable system.
Running water has been used to power machinery for millennia. Even now, hydro plants are a small but significant source of electricity in the United States. Privately owned hydro plants are not typically practical. Most properties don’t have the required proximity to a suitable water source, and even if they do, environmental regulations often preclude using it for this purpose.
However, being located on a stream may not be necessary to generate small-scale hydroelectric power. A company based in Hong Kong is developing a way to generate hydroelectric power from water pipelines. Such technology could become widely available in the near future.
New renewable energy technologies—including supporting technologies such as smart controllers and energy-storage solutions—are being invented and improved all the time. One especially exciting one, for example, promises a way to create fuel from reclaimed carbon dioxide, which could certainly help cut carbon emissions worldwide.
Which renewable energy option is right for your property?
Choosing an appropriate commercial renewable energy system requires, first and foremost, a thorough site evaluation. You will also want to consider the goals for your property and options for dealing with excess generated energy.
Finally, as with any investment, it’s important to crunch the numbers. Keep in mind that renewable energy systems can sometimes be more cost-effective than they might seem at first glance due to government incentives, creative financing options and/or side benefits (such as increased worker productivity under daylighting). Given all of the renewable energy options available today, it’s very likely that you’ll discover one that is a perfect solution for your needs.
Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer with expertise in areas including construction, small business management and sustainability (www.thegreeninkwell.com).
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