A New Sell for Photovoltaics

By Jerry Yudelson, P.E., LEED AP, Vice Principal and Sustainability Director, Interface Engineering, Portland, Ore. February 1, 2006

With the rise in oil prices appearing to be permanent, and continued concern over global warming, why do we still have problems getting more photovoltaics into our building projects?

Currently, PV systems are used in less than 20% of all LEED-certified projects. Typically, the answer is “It costs too much.” Current numbers show little economic justification for PV as an “add-on” energy supply for public projects, at least those that do not receive any tax benefits or for private projects in areas with no utility credits or low peak-period power rates. That said, perhaps the next step in making PV successful comes down to adding some “sizzle” to the steak. In other words, translate for owners and architects tangible benefits actual users will see:

PV systems are clearly visible on buildings. Translation: Everyone can recognize that you have a green building.

PV output can be measured and displayed via websites such as www.greentouchscreen.com . Translation: PV can be incorporated into public education about green buildings and can be specifically used in educational courses.

Building-integrated PV can contribute to the architectural design of a project. Translation: PV systems can substitute for costly exterior cladding materials or be placed on top of sunscreens, sometimes reducing their net cost.

Larger PV systems are newsworthy. Translation: Because they are visible and don’t pollute, PV systems are still attractive to the media and can help publicize a project.

Rooftop PV systems can be physically separated from the underlying building, owned by different entities and taxed as physical property vs. real property. Translation: PVs can be part of a “micro-utility,” owned and operated by a private company—even for public projects—qualifying them for full tax benefits. As physical property, PV systems can qualify for tax depreciation via the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System.

To the public, PV systems represent a commitment to using renewable energy. Translation: PVs can be part of “branding” an office park or other commercial building.

PV systems have aesthetic appeal. Translation: Architects are beginning to work with the deep blue color and other features of polycrystalline and amorphous PV panels.

PVs can be separately financed from the rest of the building. Translation: Some public entities, such as universities, may find it useful to have pieces of PV sponsored by public stakeholders, just as they get benefactors to sponsor name-plated bricks in a new building or name-plated seats in a theater, rather than financing them out of the base building budget.

PVs can help qualify for LEED. Translation: The value of moving from a basic LEED certified project to LEED silver may be significant where there are tax credits, such as in Oregon, or where there is an owner or public policy requirement for LEED silver, such as with the GSA.

With such a list, the decision-making for PV can pass from the electrical or energy engineer to the architect and building owner or developer. It’s important for engineers and architects to recognize this, rather than dismissing PVs out of hand at the beginning of a project.

PV Supplemental Financing Options

Federal and state accelerated depreciation

Federal and state tax credits

Federal and state subsidies

Utility credits

Peak power reductions