Right sizing the system is another critical factor in proper payback. Ricky Chu, co-founder of the consulting and design/build firm Rayco Energy, Hayward, Calif., says that the system should be selected only after preliminary work is done. “Benchmark the building to make sure it’s efficient. If not, take care of those issues. Then get a system that fits your needs,” Chu says.
If a project has combined efficiencies from a new solar photovoltaic system and LED lighting, couple these to calculate the sum of the savings and get the appropriately sized system. Kosloff says it’s not uncommon for a solar vendor to install a larger photovoltaic system than is necessary. Although the customer pays a discounted rate for sending energy back to the grid, an oversized system needlessly leaves money on the table. “The average person doesn’t get to create deals with the utility companies like vendors do, so it’s really difficult for them to get market-rate returns on sending energy back to the grid.”
Chu also cautions the lure of savings from the newest and best technology must be balanced with the existing equipment’s longevity. “If your systems still have five or 10 more years of useful life, the return on investment may not be there,” he says. “Have someone look at the components ready for upgrade in the reserve study and examine if it makes sense to change it out now or later.”
Quality systems also make a huge difference. “Make sure products have the warranty and track record you’re looking for,” Kosloff urges. “The extra upfront 10 percent cost of solar panels made in the U.S.A. or Canada will easily make up for itself over the life of the system, and you’ll avoid lost production, higher maintenance costs and potential lawsuits.”
Another way to gain maximum value is to work with someone with access to multiple manufacturers. Consultants not tied to one vendor can compare items, like life expectancy, cost savings, maintenance-friendly features, lumen outputs and lighting distribution, then pick and choose the best solutions for each application within a project.
Being early adopters can also provide major rewards for customers who seize opportunities to implement renewable-energy strategies. The Keys jumped on its retrofits when the Bay Area Multifamily Building Enhancements Program (a ratepayer-funded program) was offering substantial rebates for multifamily project retrofits. With the range of improvements they chose, The Keys will receive nearly $600,000 back in rebates—that’s approximately 80 percent of its project costs. Currently, the program is full, but other local agencies and utility companies are developing similar programs to pick up the slack.
Multifamily projects are saving money and energy by combining renewable-energy systems, but Chu says they aren’t the only ones. “This holistic approach offers the same benefits to similar facilities, like country clubs, apartment complexes, and non-profit religious associations looking for ways to reduce energy and lower their utility bills. They are underserved markets that need this support and are best served by consultants who are familiar with local utility companies and building codes.”