What are Solar-Ready Roofs? Energy Committee Pushes for Progressive Architecture

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Thursday May 29, 2014

After reading through the draft Form Based Code language for the City Center last month, the Planning Commission addressed a note under the Building Envelope Standards for Transect Zones T3-T5: “Buildings are encouraged to be solar-ready.” What is solar ready, and why does it matter?

Consideration of solar-ready roof standards in the Land Development Regulations constituted a presentation from the Energy Committee at the Planning Commission’s May 13 meeting. Energy Committee member Don Cummings did the honor of leading a formal presentation. Before defining what solar-ready roofs are, why they matter, and what they look like, Cummings spoke about energy and climate change in terms that are more general.

Based on an analysis found in the Comprehensive Plan, Vermonters spend about $2.5 billion dollars worth of energy a year, Cummings said. About 3.3 percent of the state population, South Burlington likely uses a little more energy per capita, he said. Since energy is a source that the state largely uses but does not produce, energy costs can be an economic drain, he said.

With finances and the effects of climate change in mind, the Energy Committee came up with three key actions to help steer Vermont in the direction of smart energy usage: (1) conservation of sources (e.g. turn off lights when not in use); (2) invest in energy efficiency improvements (e.g. HVAC); (3) seek out renewable energy resources.

Regarding the third point, solar serves as one resource that would help keep the energy local and help keep green jobs. If one day in the future, solar panels became extremely inexpensive and everyone wants to use them, having solar-ready roofs across all new development would be a valuable solution, he said. 
As currently defined in the redline Form Based Code draft with  input from the Energy Committee, the definition of solar-ready roofs reads: 

Solar Ready Roofs: term used to describe a building that is engineered and designed for solar installation, even if the solar installation does not happen at the time of construction. Elements of a solar ready building typically include:
a) A place on the roof of the building that has unrestricted solar access, is free of obstructions such as rooftop equipment or plumbing vents, and is structurally designed to accommodate the weight, wind, and drift loads that the system might impose; b) An internal chase or other means for connecting the solar system to the building’s mechanical or electrical system; and, c) Space within the building that is readily available for the installation of controls and components, such as electric invertors and hot water storage tanks.

Currently, there are low-cost solar financing options available for those looking to invest in solar, but SunCommon, a benefit corporation that helps Vermonters with solar projects, often has to turn down requests based on roof inadequacies. To have an existing roof retrofitted for solar is expensive, and in some cases, prohibited, Cummings said.

“Once it’s built, its energy future is dictated,” Cummings explained. 
In addition to the criteria listed in the aforementioned definition, creating an ideal structure is also largely dependent on orientation, particularly, southern-facing roofs.

Cummings reviewed photos of ideal solar-ready structures and poorly oriented buildings, and  Steve Roy, an architect knowledgeable about solar, explained the design.

At the presentation’s conclusion, everyone agreed that solar-ready roofs would be a progressive and positive addition to the city’s future. However, opinions varied regarding whether it should be mandated or encouraged and whether this topic should live within the City Center Form Based Code realm.

“There’s an awful lot going on in this field,” Developer Gene Beaudoin said. “There’s a million different things going on, and I don’t think you’ll be able to incorporate all of that thinking into what you’re trying to do with form based zoning. What you might want to consider is an alternative energy based building code.”

For Jack Russell, a real estate consultant, creating more mandates may not necessarily create the desired results. 

“Everything you’re saying about energy is really true,” he said, “….but my concern with mandates is that a lot of the energy that’s been done and a lot of the energy projects that I’ve worked on, are done because of tax incentives as well as energy conservation. The tax incentives are largely what have driven these projects to be done, and some of those tax incentives have been taken away.”

Therefore, for the sake of feasibility, Russell suggested to invest time looking into incentives rather than making it mandatory, which will hinder flexibility.
Commissioners Bernie Gagnon and Gretchen Calcagni echoed this sentiment.

“I would rather not mandate something unless we’ve looked at the whole picture,” Calcagni said. Gagnon added that having a specific mandate might not take into account other renewable energy sources that could assist with the overall goal of sustainability.

Commissioner Ted Riehle inquired about the financial facts: how much will developers need to invest in solar-ready roofs in city center?

Cummings explained that solar-ready costs would be low for residential development, but City Center has a small amount of Transect (T) 3 designations, under which residential homes would fall. T4-T5 designations reflect more urban development, which would include more development that is commercial; residential is allowed, Louisos explained, but the structures will be different from those found in T3 areas. Solar-ready costs are generally higher for commercial buildings, but obtaining exact figures is difficult to determine since design is varied, Roy said; it would be easier to determine with a specific layout.

“We see about a 10-15 percent cost to go full net-zero building, and I anticipate it to be less than one percent to prepare it to be solar ready,” Roy said, applying this to both residential and commercial.

Commissioners Sophie Quest and Barbara Benton were onboard with a mandatory solar-ready roof regulation.

“It’s one thing to discuss feasibility, but it’s another to consider the larger effects of climate change,” Benton said, adding that the labels “climate change” and “global warming” do not fully explain what may be in store for the earth’s future, according to a UN report. “As a governing body there’s a responsibility to look behind the label of what that really means and to help the average citizen to understand and be prepared,” she said.

As a result of the evening’s conversation, the Planning Commission approved the creation of a short-term task force (four weeks) to study incentives, explore other technologies to make the language more flexible, determine if this will live with Form Based Code or be a separate building code, dig up cost figures, and include the solar-ready roofs definition. The task force will consist of an Energy Committee member, a Planning Commission member, a landowner, an architect, a solar installer, a developer who’s done a larger scale project of this nature, and a structural engineer.

SOURCE:Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent