Architectural firm embraces solar panels

The architectural firm Schmidt Associates Inc. wants to persuade clients to build greener buildings. So a couple of weeks ago–during a heat wave and under scorching sun, nonetheless–workers erected a solar-panel awning in front of the company's 320 E. Vermont St. offices.

The bold statement stands out because so few Hoosier firms are blazing the same trail, daunted by the high cost of solar panels.

It's an especially tough sell in central Indiana, where electricity rates are relatively low. A solar system installed in a commercial building here would cost $24,000, but generate just $346 a year in savings-making the payback period 69 years, according to a U.S. Department of Energy formula.

Electric utilities, and now the state, are jumping in to help pay for demonstration panels at schools, but help for private businesses is rare.

Schmidt was able to tap grants from Indianapolis Power & Light and the state to cover about two-thirds of its $85,000 project. The tab was particularly hefty because of the unusual installation that includes stylized steel beams and a street-level view.

"We've had a lot of fun with this project," said Craig Flandermeyer, a landscape architect and specialist in environmental design for Schmidt.

He hopes the street-level canopy will get people talking.

"That way it has more of an education component to it," he said.

Solar panel prices have fallen through the years as technology has improved, said Geoff Greenfield of Ohio-based Third-Sun Solar and Wind Ltd., which installed Schmidt's panels. They've recently spiked, however, because of increases in silicon prices and higher demand fueled by government-sponsored projects in Europe.

Schmidt, a 100-person architectural and engineering firm, tied its panels into a Web-based monitoring program. Anyone can log onto and check how much power the panels are generating.

Flandermeyer estimates the system could generate 3,219 kilowatt hours per year–enough electricity to power 10 computers around the clock for two months.

The 30-year-old company's buildings are filled with standard office equipment that guzzles electricity, from the air-conditioning system to computers and servers. The solar panels will cover about 1 percent of consumption.

More important, Schmidt officials say, it will give the company an opportunity to talk about solar power.

To pay for its project, Schmidt received a $25,000 grant from IPL and a $28,800 grant from the state's Office of Energy and Defense Development. The 2-year-old state program has doled out $1.3 million, primarily for conservation programs. This is the first time it has funded a solar project.

Brandon Seitz, manager of the state's energy division, said solar power-generation systems have the most impact when conditions are hot and super sunny, which is exactly when the conventional electric grid is under the greatest strain.

"It's a great peak-shaver," Seitz said.

IPL and Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy, formerly Cinergy Corp., have been installing educational solar systems in schools for years. IPL this year will be adding systems in Emmerich Manual High School and Attucks Medical Magnet School, both part of Indianapolis Public Schools.

This is the first time, however, that IPL has helped a business foot the bill for a demonstration system, said Crystal Livers-Powers, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Energy experts say that not many Hoosier companies are likely to follow Schmidt's lead until the economics improve. They say it may have more potential in areas of the country with higher electric costs.

Electric rates in Indiana for residential, commercial and industrial users averaged 6.72 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with a national average of 8.5 cents, according to Department of Energy statistics from April. Higher-cost states include California, at 12 cents, and Hawaii, at 21 cents.

Because they have higher costs and long periods of direct sunlight, West Coast states have been quicker to embrace solar technology. Solar also has gained momentum in states with aggressive subsidy programs, such as New Jersey.

For now, Indiana companies trying to contain energy costs are focusing more on conservation than alternative power sources.

For example, Community Hospital South is using higher-quality window glass in its emergency-room expansion. It's also using nontoxic glues and building materials, in hopes of winning a national environmental certification.

"We're going to end up with a much nicer facility overall," said Mitch Breeze, Community South's director of facilities. The upgrades cost about 2 percent of the project's $11 million price tag, but the hospital expects to recoup the extra expense in roughly five years through cheaper bills, he said.

Also attracting interest in the state is green roofing–the installation of a shallow soil base and plants on roofs. The soil keeps direct sunlight from hitting the buildings, holding down cooling costs.

William Brown, president and director of architecture in the Indianapolis office of Evansville-based Veazey Parrott Durkin & Shoulders, designed the award-winning green roof atop an Evansville-area library branch that opened in 2003.

The branch sits at the bottom of a hill and is built into the hill. Its roof, with 18 inches of soil, ponds and other features, is expected to last up to 75 years.

"Quite a few people have visited the Evansville site," Brown said. "People have a lot of misconceptions and fears about green roofs."

Newcomers often fear steep costs, stringent upkeep and even that the roofs will leak, he said.

Brown, who moved to Indianapolis a year ago, has talked to several organizations here about green-roof systems but has found no takers. He said a state university is reviewing whether to install a shallow, non-irrigated green roof on top of a gravel ballast roof. He declined to name the university.

Schmidt is also venturing into the green-roof front. It's testing several plants and soil depths on the roof of its offices.

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