Part of the installation is setting up net-energy metering, which is the process of calculating how many kilowatt hours the panels produce and where that power goes, Burson explains. Electricity flows either onto the grid or through the facility’s circuits, wherever resistance is less. In either case, the facility has no burden of tracking or accounting for these changes. The installer, along with the utility company and its inspector, should set up all of this and provide any necessary ongoing support.
Looking for a catch? First, the initial cost is a barrier for many operators, who just can’t afford the upfront capital investment. While pricing solar conversions, Burson suggests you ask suppliers to quote the cost per watt. He says a reasonable quote is between $4.50 and $6 per watt. “It’s the best apples-to-apples comparison,” he asserts, adding the cost of solar equipment has gone down 50 percent to 60 percent in four years.
In addition, there are federal and state tax incentives available to businesses that add solar, including a 30-percent tax credit for the total cost of the installation from the federal government. Businesses that add solar this year can also claim a 100 percent deduction for the installation, instead of the five-year depreciation schedule that has been in place. State and local tax benefits vary. To get an overview, visit dsireusa.org.
Solar Costs vs. Benefits
After weighing the initial cost and payback, as well as considering energy use and power bills, some will determine solar energy is not a good fit. Tom Kern, owner and developer of AAAA Chamberlayne Storage in Richmond, Va., knows going green and solar specifically has been a trend in self-storage and other industries for the past few years. Ad nauseam, he’s heard people extol the environmental benefits.
“In self-storage energy, demand is pretty low, with climate-controlled buildings being kept at 55 degrees in the winter and 80 in the summer,” he says. “Low energy usage means it would take a lot longer to recoup the initial solar investment in energy savings.”
Kern converted AAAA Chamberlayne site from a former warehouse and investigated the installation of solar panels. He even installed solar in other, smaller development ventures. But for him, the benefits don’t outweigh the costs in self-storage. “I’m a numbers guy. I make decisions because it makes financial sense, not emotional sense.”
‘Cool’ Metal Roofs
Some eco-friendly options require a bit less commitment than solar-power conversions. One is to make a facility roof more sun-reflective and, therefore, cooler and more energy-efficient. According to American Buildings Co. (ABC), “cool” metal roofs coated with polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF) can reduce energy consumption by up to 40 percent. That’s why, in 2005, the state of California began including cool roofs in its non-residential building requirements.
Jeff Walsh, research and development engineering supervisor for Architectural Metal Systems, a business unit of ABC, describes the value of the products through an example: In 2002 and 2003, a Georgia school district built two identical new schools, both in the same geographic area. In an experiment monitored by the U.S. Department of Energy, one building installed cool roof panels, the other used traditional metal roofing. The first building saved $15,000 on energy bills over the other during the 2006/2007 school year. Over the anticipated 35-year life of the coated panels, the estimated savings for the first school is $535,000.
Cool roof panels can be installed on top of an existing roof, creating another layer of protection from the sun―as long as there’s a “structurally acceptable substrate,” Walsh explains. While the coating alone cannot be lathered on to an existing roof and be effective, cool roof panels are only a little more expensive than traditional metal roofing, Walsh says. Coated panels are also 100 percent recyclable, have increased fire-resistance, and maintain color and gloss over years of exposure to the sun and weather, he adds.
The biggest drawback of a sun-reflective roof is it’s sometimes a good thing for natural warmth to seep into a building, for example, during a frigid winter in the Midwest when the heat is pumping full blast. “We definitely see more of [our product] in southern regions than northern regions,” Walsh concedes. He also notes California is a popular area for cool roofs, given the building requirements.The most fervent environmental activists might hold it against you if you’re not carbon-neutral, but odds are, they won’t represent a large chunk of the self-storage customer base. Customers want a secure, clean, safe place to store their belongings, and any green-related marketing is a bonus. The true value is looking at how clean energy can save money in the long term. But is it worth the investment? Only each individual operator can decide.