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Interview with Steven Strong

Steven Strong is the president of Solar Design Associates based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has worked in the solar and energy consulting industry for over three decades.

08/2006

By Alex Wilson and Jane Kolleeny

GreenSource: What do you say to a building owner who demands to see photovoltaic systems provide a quick payback?

Steven Strong: Traditional economic analysis no longer applies; it’s just that most people don’t understand that, yet. We’re never going to return to the 1960s and 1970s where we had infinite amounts of cheap energy. Energy prices have just begun a skyward spiral that is not going to let up; no one wants to hear that, but it’s the case. Every single thing that is happening is driving conventional energy costs higher, from foreign policy to the exponential increase in growth in the developing world’s economies.
Steven Strong
Photo © Jim Harrison, Harvard
Steven Strong is the president of Solar Design Associates based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has worked in the solar and energy consulting industry for over three decades.
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Solar and renewable energy sources are among the very few things in buildings demanded to have a payback. No one asks about the payback for the boiler they put in the house or the chiller they put in the office tower.

GS: When does using photovoltaics start to make economic sense?

SS: Of course, cost-effectiveness matters, but it’s in a different context now. In the case of de-regulated utilities, the price difference between peak demand periods and off-peak demand is enormous, by a factor of ten or more. Annual electricity levies are derived from the high-water mark over a year of use for your building—the entire electric bill is modified by this demand charge. The logic from the utility is that this is what you demanded on the hottest day of the year and in order for the utility to satisfy your requirements whenever they occur, they need the capacity available to bring it on-line within a very short notice. Solar could be used to offset power usage during peak demand periods.

GS: Why do you think the solar industry in America lags that of Japan and Germany?

SS: In Europe and Japan, very conservative clients like insurance companies and banks are going for solar like no tomorrow. They are cladding their headquarters in solar because they are most acutely aware of long-term financial trends. They are also acutely aware of their constituency’s preferences; the constituency in Europe is much more aware than their American counterparts. They highly value environmental stewardship and corporate responsibility.

GS: Do you think the future of the industry is in building-integrated photovoltaics?

SS: In the scheme of things, it costs you very little to clad your building with solar if you were going to clad it in imported granite. What we see happening, though it’s subtle, in Europe and to some extent in Japan and the U.S., is that solar PVs are configured to replace conventional elements. These solar elements are beginning to take a position alongside traditional premium building materials. It potentially costs less to clad your building with solar than it does to use the most expensive of the so-called premium materials like marble, which doesn’t provide you any cash flow or energy.

GS: You have been involved as a consultant on many projects in New York, including the Solaire in Battery Park City. More recently, how have you been involved in the new Bank of America tower at One Bryant Park?

SS: The client wanted to use solar, but with the orientation of the building and surrounding buildings it was really tough to make a case. However, they have a very integrated response there; the owner wanted a carbon-neutral building and that is an enormous leap. The response was incredibly creative on the part of the architects (Cook+Fox Architects). This tower has such a small footprint, under the best of circumstances there was no way to generate enough energy to power the building, so instead they reduced their energy use across their full portfolio of buildings to make 1 Bryant Park carbon-neutral. It’s “whole systems” thinking.

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