Solar in the City: Skyscrapers Rock & Rule

It’s the future. With the largest number of high-rise buildings – over 6,000 – and with the most skyscrapers (243), New York City has become the largest solar energy producer in the world.

There are solar panels on roofs and the sides of buildings as well as in glass, in sheets over regular glass, in electricity-producing coatings over glass. New buildings incorporate solar storage into architectural plans. Older ones have done so through a retrofit. All buildings are storing energy for rainy, cloud-filled days. Government storage has generated enough energy to allow the city to function off the grid. Carbon emissions have been greatly reduced and a net zero carbon foot print has been met.

Yes, it’s the future. And yes, it’s New York City’s future. But rather than some sort of Buck Rogers’s scenario, this is the foreseeable future of the world’s greatest city.

The impact on expense profiles and operating incomes could be huge – and the impact on property values significant.
High-rises are notorious energy hogs. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 40% of total U.S. energy is consumed in residential and commercial buildings. All that height and density produces an Urban Heat Island Effect which makes hot temperatures higher and generates greater need for A/C power.

Enter what could be called the perfect storm. A state and city government committed to lowering gas emissions, decreasing the carbon footprint, becoming sustainable and being able to operate outside the grid and providing many incentives for businesses to do so. In New York where mammoth wind turbines in Central Park are not an option, the best and cleanest solution is solar.

Just last month, new long-term goals were created for energy storage and solar capacity. The city plans to build 11-MWh of storage capacity by 2020 and 1,000 MW of solar capacity by 2030.

Add world climate change to the above, and we also have a new sense of urgency for sustainability. Mid-year, NASA stated that 2016 has been the hottest year and July 2016 the hottest month ever recorded on earth since modern climate reports began in 1880.

In an article by Chelsea Harvey in The Washington Post earlier this year, “With an increasing global migration into the world’s urban areas, which are expected to support at least two-thirds of the total human population by 2050, experts have argued that cities have no choice but to transition toward low-carbon systems if they’re going to remain sustainable.”

Thus, we have incentive and urgency. The final piece of the equation is viability and not only that of installing a solar photovoltaic (PV) system. Rooftop solar PV panels do greatly reduce electricity consumption from the grid and carbon emissions. But even with prices going down, they can be expensive to install and high-rise and skyscraper rooftops may not be able to accommodate enough panels to reap the desired return on investment.

Solar PV panels will remain a primary source of solar energy but it is swiftly-moving solar technologies that are working to provide an easier, more cost-efficient solution.

SolarWindow Technologies, Inc. announced last month that it has begun work on transparent electricity-generating veneers that can be applied onto existing windows. The coatings would have a layer which would absorb light and convert it to energy; and another layer from which the energy could be extracted.

If the company succeeds in developing the process, they claim it will generate 50 times the energy of a PV panel and have a ROI of only one year. Whether it will become reality should be known within the next few years.
But there are other options including solar glass. To date, one of the problems with solar glass has been a lack of clarity and transparency. But scientists at Michigan State University have developed a fully transparent solar concentrator that can turn any ordinary window or piece of glass (such as your Smartphone screen) into the equivalent of a PV panel.

Research is also being undertaken by technology companies as well as academia scientists on how to create silicon-based solar cells that can be cost effectively produced on a large, commercial scale. Currently, silicon needs to be much thicker than solar cells, making it too costly for widespread use. Research includes using more unrefined or “dirty” silicon and/or combining it with other substances to produce a cost-feasible product.

Silicon also plays a role in the development of innovative storage. According to ScienceDaily, “A novel system has been created that allows the storage of energy in molten silicon which is the most abundant element in Earth’s crust.”

Compelling incentives. Urgency in the form of climate change. Technology seeking new ways to harness solar power more easily and less expensively. Before we know it, solar in the city will be commonplace, an extraordinary advancement in clean energy. The impact on expense profiles and operating incomes could be huge – and the impact on property values significant.

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Steven_J._SchleiderBy Steven J. Schleider, MAI, LEED-AP BD + C President, Metropolitan Valuation Services