Pacific Ridge Electric Completes Retrofitted Net-Zero-Energy Building in California

The recently retrofitted IBEW Local No. 332’s Union Hall in San Jose, Calif. is net-zero-energy efficient, with a 200-kilowatt (kW) rooftop solar array—spelling out “IBEW”—that can be seen from the air.

Pacific Ridge Electric Inc., Campbell, Calif., completed the project in January. The solar array will produce more than 100 percent of the building’s energy consumption. The project, which uses Aurora solar design software, will save the union over $140,000 per year in utility bills and reduced carbon emissions.

The retrofitting also included a building facelift, battery system, electric vehicle charging stations, skylights with transparent Building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) panels and a shade awning made of recycled panels from the building’s original array.

This follows California’s strict targets for new and existing building energy standards in the next decade. By 2020, all new residential buildings are required to meet net-zero-energy requirements. By 2030 the law will also apply to all new commercial buildings and 50 percent of existing ones.

“There are few retrofitted net-zero-energy buildings in the world,” said Christopher D. Smith, building developer and alternative energy engineer at NECA and IBEW. “We wanted to show you can do that with current technologies and have it be affordable and cash-flow positive.”

“We don’t yet have a full year of data, but we think this project will be cash-flow positive after year one,” he said. “With the value we added, it should bring the building’s price up.”

Smith referred to real estate data where every dollar saved in energy year over year adds $10–20 to the building.

Pacific Ridge Electric was first offered the project in 2016, through NECA’s Energy Conservation and Performance program (ECAP). ECAP and Pacific Ridge Electric facilitated the project’s energy auditing, economic modeling, conceptual design, performance bonding and $3.2 million in financing, according to an IBEW press release. ECAP also administered project management services. And Aurora provided details on the energy production and bill savings benefits of each design configuration.

Ken Spears, vice president of Pacific Ridge Electric, was on board with the fact that ECAP could fund these types of projects. No longer do ECs need to go to customers and ask for millions of dollars to put projects together, he said.

“We can fund these projects for you up front, and we can save you more money than the funding costs you. That was the huge eye-opener,” Spears said in an ElectricTV video on the project.

“Pacific Ridge had never done a net-zero building or solar array of this size,” Smith said. “We took basically a mom-and-pop shop and gave them the biggest business of their career. And now others are asking them to add solar to their buildings.”

Spelling out IBEW in solar panels on the roof originally started as a joke, according to Smith. With Aurora software, he tried different designs in minutes. He thought, "why not get crazy and make the building stand out?" When he showed the design to board members, they loved it, he said.

The design added considerable cost to the project. With a normal layout, it would have been closer to $600,000, but with the added wrapping and paneling, it cost about $1 million total.

This isn’t the union hall’s first experience with solar. San Jose’s first commercial-scale solar array, a 30-kW system, was installed in 2001 during the height of the California and Enron electricity crisis. The building was able to remain running on solar power during the large-scale blackouts.

This time around, Pacific Ridge Electric and ECAP worked to future-proof the project. Technology becomes outdated quickly, so they made it easy to switch out old panels for more efficient tech, instead of needing to do a full redesign.

Smith said that solar still doesn’t have that much market penetration.

Close up of the roof of the building with the solar panels in IBEW configuration

“Solar still produces less than 10 percent of U.S. electricity usage over the course of a year,” he said. “We think the missing link is education.”

Education was a big focus for the project.

“I bet 99 percent of people haven’t gotten up close with solar panels, and we want to get them to start considering adding them on their own homes,” Smith said.

The IBEW wanted people to be able to tour the array or have lunch on the roof while looking at it.

ECAP wants to help ECs with similar projects.

“We’re going to be right there in the trenches with them, helping with design, going to meetings with business owners,” Smith said.

If interested, contact Smith at csmith@calmcc.org.

About the Author

Marlena Chertock

Freelance Writer

Marlena Chertock is a former editorial intern at Electrical Contractor magazine who now writes for the magazine as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, NBC News, News21, WTOP and The Gazette. Contact...

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