ULI San Francisco Blog

Lessons Learned: Ready or Not Renewables are Coming to Commercial Buildings

ULI members and the greater Bay Area real estate community had the unique opportunity to hear from several experts on the exciting renewable energy revolution happening in commercial real estate and the significant challenges ahead in implementing new regulations. The dynamic discussion was led by Joshua Kagan, Vice President of Business Development at CleanFund, who set the stage with the Chinese word wei ji, meaning “crisis,” referring to the climate change crisis facing the world today.

With crisis comes opportunity; and, here in California, one way we’re seeing that opportunity is in the adoption of clean energy sources like solar and wind bringing energy efficiency to the built environment. As the state gets ready for all new commercial buildings to be Zero Net Energy by 2030, California’s forward-thinking energy requirements have created the right environment for clean energy investment. The only public-sector representative, panelist Bryan Early, Special Advisor to Commissioner McAllister of the California Energy Commission, reviewed for the audience the state goals for carbon emission reduction (see the landmark bill, AB32), driving the 2030 requirement.

While all panelists agreed on the importance of such measures to curb greenhouse gases (after all, as Joshua reminded us, buildings are responsible for almost one-third of all global greenhouse gas emissions), the two panelists representing real estate developers were most vocal on the challenges and opportunities in implementing renewable energy on buildings. Jaxon Love, Sustainability Program Manager at Shorenstein, a major commercial property owner/developer, touted his firm’s efforts on achieving sought after Energy Star ratings, but wondered how his firm will achieve higher ratings and Zero Net Energy, when their urban buildings have a limited roof area for solar (a question more and more developers asking). Incidentally, many low/medium-rise buildings in the state will be able to take advantage of new cheap solar to achieve Zero Net Energy Building status, but building’s like Jaxon’s will be more challenging.

However, Aaron Binkley, Director of Sustainability Programs, at Digital Realty, a publicly traded REIT specializing in data centers, advocated for a broader approach in defining a Zero Net Energy Building, as Digital Realty can only generate 1-2% of their energy used onsite. He suggested looking into Renewable Energy Credits or Power Purchase Agreements. Tyler Espinoza, Renewable Energy Analyst with 3Degrees explained different offsite renewable energy investment products that projects can use to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. These tools provide pathways for a building to achieve Zero Net Energy, while at the same time investing in clean energy projects (a concept called additionality).

Just as the title of the session said, “Ready or Not,” between onsite clean energy generation and offsite clean energy purchase or investment, the infrastructure to achieve a Zero Net Energy building is here today, it’s just up to you to decide whether your building will achieve it! The audience members seemed to agree.

By Dave Rhoads, Real Estate and Workplace Services, Google Inc.

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