If you're in commercial property management these days, chances are good that you're either installing or contemplating installing a solar electric system and joining the ranks of such notable solar users as Google, FedEx, Patagonia, Tony's Fine Foods, and Sharp Corp. Commercial building owners are concerned about the bottom line - saving money on their electric bills, giving themselves a hedge against rate increases, gaining surety of electric costs - and they are increasingly viewing solar as a way to manage electricity costs. Additionally, the non-quantifiable benefit of solar - image enhancement - works to the building owner's advantage as well, as installing solar generates positive buzz about a company and its commitment to the environment.
So, what considerations go into the decision to go solar? Utility cost reduction is No. 1. West Sacramento, CA-based Tony's Fine Foods, for example, installed solar modules in a system that covers an area the size of three football fields. These modules will generate 1.5 million kilowatt-hours annually, accounting for more than 40 percent of the organization's energy needs and reducing the company's electric bills by $22,000 per month.
In the United States, the changing political winds are providing growing financial incentives for solar, as governmental support is increasing both in value and in the number of incentive programs. The federal solar tax credit program was recently extended by 1 year to Dec. 31, 2008, and incentive programs have passed in several states, including California, Arizona, Rhode Island, Michigan, Washington, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In California, the third-largest solar market in the world, Governor Schwarzenegger's "Million Solar Roofs" initiative has set aggressive goals for installing solar systems throughout the state.
Currently, the federal government provides a 30-percent tax credit, without cap, for the cost of a commercial installation. In addition, depending upon the state and the municipality involved, rebates and other incentives are often available. Tax credits, plus a rebate sponsored by San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric Co., reduced the initial cost of the Tony's Fine Foods installation by 50 percent.
Another factor in considering solar is corporate social responsibility. Though less tangible than financial savings, it is no less important. For every commercial solar system installed, the load on the electric utility grid is reduced incrementally and, by extension, the potential for a brownout or blackout is reduced. When utility pressure peaks, solar-panel output peaks right along with it, feeding its maximum output back into the grid and reducing the load when relief is most needed.
Solar energy is an alternative to other methods of electricity production, thereby reducing carbon emissions and global warming. A building owner can't see or feel these benefits when a system is in operation, but every watt of electricity generated is one step away from environmental harm; in the big picture, that's the most compelling and the most "real" consideration of all.
Ron Kenedi is vice president at Mahwah, NJ-based Sharp's Solar Energy Solutions Group (http://solar.sharpusa.com).