Friday, January 14, 2011

Massive Solar Disk Part of $65 Million Oregon Project

Portland, Oregon prides itself on being an eco-friendly city claiming to have the second most green buildings in the nation behind only Chicago. And now officials are investing in what they say will be the tallest living building in the world.

The Oregon Sustainability Center will generate its own electricity, use only rain for its water source and treat all its waste. How? A massive solar disk on the roof, a 200,000 gallon storage tank and a sewage separater on site that will turn solids into fertilizer and flush water back into the ground. And instead of a typical forced air heating system, the building will use geo thermal to regulate the inside temperature.

If it sounds expensive, it is. Most of the cost of the building, $65-million, will come from taxpayers. The Oregon University System and the City of Portland are picking up the lions share. To recoup the high construction costs, the building will have to charge among the highest rents in the city. Some estimate rents will be 20% above market rates.

That's already proving to be a concern. Only government and some environmental groups have stepped forward to say they'll pay the high rent. Portland State University will house classrooms and faculty offices. Officials say they'll use the opportunity to study green technologies. Some Portland officials compare the project to a NASA experiment, expensive but worth it for the knowledge gained.

But critics call it a boondoggle. Some developers have said it's not economically sustainable. There are so many restrictions such as the use of local building material that costs will be even higher than projected. As long as for profit companies refuse to pay the over-market rents the building may never have enough tenants.

Even with all the technology, developers say they'll need some social engineering to reach their energy saving goals. Tenants will be encouraged to walk up stairs more and use the elevators less. Temperatures will be cooler than most office buildings in the winter and warmer in the summer. And the building will be equipped with sensors throughout that will monitor electricity usage by the cubicle. So workers will be notified if they use too much power. Charge a cell phone at your desk, get a warning. Leave your computer on over night, be prepared for a stern email.

Some even question whether green buildings save energy. Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center has looked at green schools. Washington State was the first in the nation to require all government buildings be built to silver L.E.E.D. standards. He compared two recently constructed schools, one built to green standards and one not. He found the green building used 30% more energy than the other one.

The typical challenge for green buildings is insulation. They rely heavily on glass because when you use natural lighting you need less electricity. But too much glass makes it very expensive to cool and heat a building. So your electiricy savings are eaten up and then some by using more natural gas.

Portland's mayor, while a big supporter of the project, says if it does not pencil out economically then it may have to be scaled back. It's going through a secon design phase right now to bring the costs down and groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for this summer.


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