June 7, 2016

How to Put a Price on Sustainability

For Immediate Release

With World Environment Day around the corner, we at Kasian decided to reflect on our sustainability efforts that support environmental protection and promote design that has a positive impact on the environment.  As leaders at the forefront of emerging technologies in architecture, we use some of the industry’s most advanced technologies to incorporate sustainable design principles in every project. Our vision is to help our clients design buildings that will not only reduce their environment footprint, but also have a positive social, economic, and environmental impact. One recent project that really strove to be the shining beacon of sustainable design, in fact net-zero, off the grid, and LEED platinum was for a retailer who envisioned their store to set the standard for sustainability leadership in the commercial/retail industry. Here we discuss some of our findings on the pricetag that comes with designing for a net zero and off the grid retail store.

What is Net Zero + Off the Grid?
Being net zero and being off the grid are commonly defined as having the building’s source of energy produced on-site, thus relying on a renewable resource that is sustainable. To guide this project’s net zero and off the grid nature, the client established design drivers with the team for their store to not only become a test lab for sustainable technology but also be self-sufficient in order to play their part in reducing their environmental footprint.

Energy Generation + Storage
For one, electricity was to be generated more onsite than consumed over the course of a year, thus eliminating their reliance on natural gas and operating without a grid connection via lithium ion battery storage.  One means of energy generation was with high efficiency bi-facial roof top PV panels as these are well established, quiet and passive technologies. To complement this, lithium ion batteries would store the generated energy as these have the highest power density rating, taking up the least amount of space per kWh.

Imbalance between Energy Generation + Storage
However, as our design team further analyzed, particularly for this project’s size, the battery storage took up a considerable amount of space within the building and ultimately it came out to a very costly result in the project scope. Essentially, storing enough energy for the 2-3 “worst” weeks of the year resulted in an exponential increase in the number of batteries required on site. Therefore, while adding more PV panels will enhance the onsite energy generation, the resulting added storage necessary to keep up with the energy generated does not produce a financially viable result in the long run. As this project developed, with the numerous other strategies we proposed to reduce energy consumption and improve the building’s energy generation capabilities, it became evident that the importance of a cost-effective delivery solution, including critical real time costing using BIM technologies, could not be understated.

The Cost of Energy Efficiency vs the Cost of Renewable Energy Infrastructure
What became evident was an imbalance between the capital cost of being energy efficient versus the cost of renewable energy infrastructure. Essentially, the money we put in exceeds the renewable energy reward. If we the factor in the building’s life cycle carbon footprint, then buying, using, and disposing of batteries solely to ensure an “off-grid” status does not deem it a sustainable result. So the takeaway from this project is that, while being net zero and off the grid is 100% possible, the underlying aspect to focus on is that being net zero should be a means to an end, rather than the end itself. We need to stress the importance of the cost at which we are willing to pay for reducing our environmental footprint because equally critical is the consideration for the building’s lifecycle carbon footprint and long term financial viability. Therefore, the pricetag for sustainability requires factoring in long term goals of energy efficiency with the help of cost-effective technologies that can monitor the building’s life cycle.