Turning office buildings into solar power plants

For business

While the case can be made to reduce a building’s carbon footprint for environmental stewardship, the economic advantage of lowering a building’s operational costs is reason enough for many. And with 40 percent of global energy consumption going toward powering buildings, everyone from architects and designers to building owners and tenants are looking for ways to lower electricity expenses.

Luckily, new and innovative technologies are cropping up across the globe that can help alleviate both a building’s operational costs and its environmental impact: solar-powered buildings.

Rooftop solar isn’t just for residences

Thanks to technological advancements, subsidy programs and government support, solar energy is quickly becoming the world’s most affordable renewable.

Because solar panels can either be easily affixed to rooftops or installed in backyards, they have become a popular green choice for homes across the country. According to the experts at Fixr.com, homeowners in certain states can save more than $1,500 a year with rooftop solar arrays. And California, in a push to achieve its state renewable goals, recently mandated that all new homes must be built with rooftop solar panels.

Many states have also instituted net metering programs, which allow residential ratepayers with solar panels to sell unused energy generated back to the power grid. Although there is no commercial equivalent to net metering, projects are underway all over the country to incorporate solar energy into offices, schools and other non-residential buildings.

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New York, for example, is predicted to double its 2017 record of installed solar capacity by the end of 2018. Construction has begun for an additional 2.4 megawatts (MW) of commercial rooftop solar, which will be the city’s second-largest installation. Massachusetts has also ramped up its renewable efforts recently; several college campuses have pledged to use 100 percent renewable power, and Hampshire College’s campus is already entirely powered by on-campus solar panels.

Varying designs with a common purpose

While rooftop panels are a viable option for most buildings, researchers are trying to integrate solar energy as a power source and a design feature.

Solar startup NEXT Energy Technologies does just that, with windows that feature a photovoltaic film that acts as a source of power to the entire building. According to the company’s founder, Corey Hoven, the windows could save a 12-story, minimally-compliant building over $100,000 a year on electricity bills, and would produce up to 30 percent of the building’s own energy needs.

The Active Office and Classroom program in the U.K. uses different methods of capturing solar energy, with similar results. The Active Office incorporates a curved roof with solar cells that can move with the sun, and a photovoltaic thermal system to provide heating and electricity in one. After its first year in operation, researchers found that the building generated more than 1.5 times the energy it consumed.

Even with setbacks in government subsidies and technological limitations, investments in and development of solar energy are at an all-time high. With further development, self-powered buildings will no longer be a novelty, but become the norm all over the world.

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Gabriella is a North Carolina-based writer covering topics related to the energy industry and the environment. A Sunshine State native, Gabriella graduated from the University of Florida in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in English.