First zero net energy office opens in St. Pete; home to Florida Sierra Club

12/03/12 Janelle Irwin
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St. Petersburg officials and environmentalists celebrated the opening of the city’s first commercial building that will make more energy than it uses today. The net zero energy office on Central Avenue near downtown is now home to the Sierra Club’s Florida headquarters. Bob Harrington, the residential director of sales for the company that provided some of the building’s technology, Bosch, said the use of photovoltaic solar panels could actually earn money.

“Every community throughout the U.S. or every utility is treated differently. So, it depends on – when you want to know what will your solar system offset or what will you get back is where the questions have to be very localized so that you can get a complete understanding of ‘if I offset this much money, I’m going to get back this much.’ If I overproduce, in some states it’s against the law to overproduce, in some utilities it’s against rules to overproduce and they won’t pay you for anything.”

Bosch provided some of the technology for the building. Solar panels line the building’s roof and a large canopy outside. Sam Manaberi, sales director for commercial business for Bosch said instead of capturing the electricity into batteries and using it on site, the power is put back in to Progress Energy Florida’s grid and the property is credited for what it contributes.

“You have the sun radiating on the solar panels on top of the roof and on top of this canopy. Now that electricity is wired down to these inverters that take the DC current and transforms it to AC current that will then later be fed into the grid and then used when needed. So, that’s the net metering of it – so the meter spins backward and forward for you.”

To allow the electricity made by the building’s solar system to equal its consumption, the designers installed a series of efficiencies. That includes things like an efficient heating and cooling system and tinted windows. Tom Hall is the managing partner for All Florida Management Group, the company that owns the property. He said heating and cooling the building is easier because of the insulation used.

“You know we have a – it’s similar to a Styrofoam-like product that’s all around the perimeter, on the inside perimeter of the building. All of the insulation on the inside goes all the way up to the ceiling.”

Hall said the building was also designed to repel heat.

“The roof is also obviously key. It’s a four inch – it’s called [an] IsoBoard TPO roof – it’s a very high rated roof from the standpoint of reflecting heat.”

The Sierra Club is renting the building from All Florida Management Group and played a role in choosing sustainable designs for both the interior and exterior. Mary Anne Hitt is the national director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

“Well, whenever the Sierra Club is looking for new office space, we’re always looking for opportunities to make it as sustainable and as carbon free as possible. So, as the folks were looking around town this opportunity presented itself and they jumped on it because it’s so aligned with our values of moving the country beyond coal to clean energy.”

Hitt and her husband live in Sheppardstown, West Virginia, the state’s oldest town. They got people there thinking about using solar energy by installing it in their own home.

“We did it because we wanted to save money because it seemed like a good investment and because we wanted to rely less on dirty coal and oil and fossil fuels. Little did we know that we would end up on the front page of the newspaper – the local newspaper – because we put up the first solar panels. We then had an open house – 70 people in our town of 1,000 people came by. Two of our neighbors immediately went solar. Many of the other folks who came to our house that day went solar and now the town is trying to map out whether that we could actually power the whole town with solar power.”

Now Hitt thinks the building in St. Pete will set an even bigger example.

“We are really excited about raising the bar, not only for folks in this part of the world to see a new example of real sustainability, but also for people in other parts of the country, the rest of our Sierra Club offices, this is a real inspiration and a real example.”

St. Pete was Florida’s first city to receive the Green Building Coalition’s Green City designation and has been named Tree City USA by the National Arbor Day Foundation for the past twenty years. In the spring, the city installed solar water heaters on 22 of its buildings and installed ten electric charging stations throughout the city. Mayor Bill Foster said this is just another step in furthering St. Pete’s green initiative.

“We like being first. We like having this first certification. We like being the first tree city, the green city and I’ll tell you, to have this as a first for Bosch and this technology that they chose St. Petersburg …”

The Sierra Club’s new Florida headquarters and St. Pete’s first net zero building has also been certified LEED Platinum. It is located on the corner of Central Avenue and 20th Street across from Haslam’s Book Store.

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