June 20, 2016

John Prather

Move over solar. 4 additional alternative energy sources

With more than 300 sunny days a year, Arizona seems like the ideal location for the future of solar energy in commercial building.

It’s also a big part of our past.

“Some of the earliest buildings in Arizona which took advantage of the sun were the cliff dwellings,” according to the Arizona Solar Center, an advocacy group. The low-angled winter sun would heat the south-facing buildings, while the cave sheltered the dwelling from the higher-angled summer sun.

Today, of course, the sun is not just used passively as the Natives did, but also to actively produce clean energy through photovoltaic panels.

Although the collection of solar energy is good for the environment, that is not the main reason it has been embraced. Gonzo Gonzalez, senior project manager for Jokake Construction, said, “During the operation of finished buildings, energy usage is such a large percentage of operating costs that it just makes business sense to reduce energy costs.”

While solar energy is an obvious answer, it is not the only one. Others include:

  • Wind. Well-known to many Arizonans from the massive wind farm located along I-10 near Palm Springs, California. The website alternative-energy-news.com reports that the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris recently installed wind turbines, which are expected to generate enough electricity to power its first floor and last for 20 years.
  • Hydroelectric. Produced by water flowing through turbines. Each year, millions of Arizonans pass over one of the world’s greatest hydroelectric projects: Hoover Dam, 30 miles outside Las Vegas.
  • Geothermal. Heat from the earth. The Brock Environmental Center in Maryland utilizes geothermal to fulfill all its energy needs, and Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana has found significant energy savings from geothermal.
  • Biomass. The combustion of carbon dioxide found in organic materials. Wood and fossil fuel are two common examples of biomass, but agricultural crops or waste and municipal waste products are also utilized and more environmentally friendly.

Solar cells can be found on rooftops and in parking lots throughout Arizona, but these other alternative energy sources are mostly viable only when produced by commercial power plants.

One exception, though, is Lookout Mountain Elementary School in Phoenix, which was completely rebuilt two years ago by Adolfson & Peterson Construction of Tempe and now utilizes a geothermal system. Jeff Keck, regional vice president of operations at Adolfson & Peterson, said, “The Washington School District has always been at the forefront of the movement to make sure their buildings are energy efficient and they are good stewards of the environment.”

Keck added that his company has also been working to develop biomass energy sources such as manure and algae.

President Michael Crow of Arizona State University made a commitment that the university will become completely solar-powered, and his efforts are obvious. “One of the largest solar users that comes to mind is ASU,” Gonzalez said. “Their program is vast and widespread over dozens of spaces across campus.”

Still, some believe Arizona is not doing enough to capitalize on the variety of alternative energy opportunities.

“Unfortunately in Arizona, we have a very old-school network in construction,” said Mary Wolf-Francis of DIRTT Environmental Solutions, a Tempe-based manufacturer of prefab interiors. “Unless you’ve got a forward-thinking architect or design firm, it’s pretty hard to find projects that actually honor all these alternatives we have for energy.”