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Solar in the City: A New Year’s Resolution for the Planet

Posted By admin, Tuesday, January 23, 2018

By Teresa Jan

As the sun set on the last day of November 2017, architects and engineers gathered at Gould Evans studio for the AIASF Committee on the Environment (COTE) workshop “Solar in the City”. Maria Grimm and Claire McKenna, building performance specialists at Meyers+ Engineers and WSP respectively, kicked off the workshop by asking a question that compares carbon emissions to guzzling fat filled donuts: 

How can we on Earth consume more wholesome food (clean fuel) instead of donuts (greenhouse gas-emitting fuel) so we can feel well and healthy consistently? 


How clean and healthy is regional energy infrastructure? 

Approximately 1/3 of the United States are supplied by renewable energy: Some states like Hawaii have achieved as high as 50%, but states like Colorado run only about 10%. California’s overall statewide target of 40% carbon reduction by 2030 will be outpaced by Seattle, Oslo and Vancouver’s city goal of 100% reduction by 2050. The upside is that there is stiff competition between cities and regions working to reduce carbon emissions. 

Most of the urban buildings that will contribute to emissions in 2050 are already built. To reduce existing building energy use, three simple steps are encouraged, with costs from cheapest to most expensive: 

  1. Retro-Commissioning
  2. Standard Retrofits, such as lighting upgrades and supplemental load reduction
  3. Deep Retrofits with new systems

Reconsidering the 3-step net zero energy pyramid order

The common approach follows:

  1. Load reduction strategies, such as building orientation and high-performance envelope;
  2. Provide efficient mechanical and electrical systems; then
  3. Maximize renewable energy on-site, such as photovoltaic (PV) systems.

With the plummeting cost of photovoltaics, thinking about PVs on-site (step 3) in conjunction with efficient systems (step 2) allows us to capture synergies between the type of energy demand and supply. 

Workshop participants divided into six groups—each assigned a city with the goal to maximize reductions in total building carbon emissions using the most efficient city funding allocation. Each group was given its city’s metrics for carbon emissions, energy use intensity (EUI) and solar access, existing building areas, and new roof areas available for renewable power installations. 

Team Tucson, AZ won the competition, thanks to 90% of building areas being solar viable. Three strategies helped win this race to a carbon neutral city: 

  1. Retrofit at least 40% of a city’s commercial buildings to make an impact, depending on the building areas and commercial EUI. Convince corporate offices to compete for the lowest EUI and highest sustainability mission, knowing these businesses will reap the benefits of healthier and more productive workplaces as well as attracting top talent. 
  2. Retrofit at least 40% of existing residential buildings, depending on the building areas and residential EUI – this will benefit all generations within the community, will reduce household expenses in the long run and will boost the home construction industry. 
  3. Maximize funding allocation for new solar roofs – an investment that could greatly reduce carbon emissions and create clean energy infrastructure for decades to come. 

A March 29, 2017 Time Magazine article analyzed the “projected need vs current funding” to update American infrastructure. Electricity stood out because projected need is only $177B whereas current funding is $757B. Author David Von Drehle reported, “Without much fanfare, the US is figuring out how to produce economic growth without consuming more energy. That might be a first in human history.

The workshop takeaway: with the tools we have, architects and engineers can design future new buildings and deep green renovations to be self-reliant, to store extra energy output for later demand or supply to neighboring buildings, and be energy and carbon net neutral. 

This editorial was prepared or accomplished by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the Board of AIA San Francisco.

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