Feature Article - October 2002
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Conserve Your Energy

Bright ideas that are easy on the environment—and your budget

By Elisa Kronish

High beams

Speaking of light, just think, enough sunlight falls on the planet each minute to meet the energy needs of the entire world for an entire year. Instead, we use fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas that are being depleted at a rate 100,000 times faster than they are being formed.

When the whole country was wracked by the oil embargo in the late '70s, solar energy took the spotlight, joined by other alternative energy sources like wind and water. But the oil crisis faded, and energy use returned to status quo. That doesn't mean so long for solar, though. There are more than 10,000 homes in the United States powered entirely by solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the national organization for U.S. commercial enterprises involved in solar energy. And you, too, can save energy, plus the environment, by bringing solar technology to your facility.

Consider creative uses for solar, like the 60 solar-powered golf carts recently added to the Francis H. I'i Brown Golf Course at the Mauna Lani Resort in Hawaii. A solar electric system charges the vehicles using sunlight, reducing recharging costs as well as doubling the battery life of the electric carts. This system can be bought with new vehicles or retrofitted on existing electric golf and utility cars.


A solar-powered golf cart quietly and continuously recharges its battery with sunlight while the golfers play.

"We save thousands of dollars during the life of each golf cart, without compromising on performance," says Neil Bustamante, vice president of operations at Mauna Lani Resort.

Besides the golf carts, the resort installed a solar electronic roof system at the hotel and bungalows and one for the golf facility. The rooftop panels reduce utility costs, while extending the lifetime of the roof and providing thermal insulation benefits to the buildings.

The common type of solar energy is called photo voltaic (PV) technology, which converts sunlight directly into electricity. Batteries store electricity for use later. Solar energy is frequently used in hot-water heating installations—there are more than one million of them in the United States. This use of solar energy typically offers the biggest potential savings to users. A complete solar water heating systems costs around $3,000, but savings over electric or fuel bills can be as high as 80 percent.

More than 300,000 solar pool heating systems have also been installed nationwide. According to the SEIA, a buyer recoups the cost of a pool system in as little as two years. Solar collectors are often installed on a roof but can go anywhere the sun shines for a significant part of the day. Another plus is that maintenance for a solar pool system is generally nothing beyond the normal filter cleaning and winter shut-down.

Passive solar applications also harness the sunlight to save money. They comprise a holistic way of looking at how a structure can work with the sun to stay warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer—a lot of it is just common sense and taking into account where the sun will hit your facility.

For example, if you're building a new structure, you'd position it to take advantage of solar gain, explains Doug Schroeder of the Sustainable Buildings Industry Council. Although that's more difficult with a lot of trees around, you can still determine what pattern the sun takes across the sky and place windows in a location that allows for maximum entrance of sun rays in the winter and minimum in the summer. Overhangs like awnings enhance this effect by letting light in when the sun is lower in the sky during the winter and shading the building during summer months when the sun is higher.

So, keep filling those recycling bins, but look around and see what else you can do to earn a few other environmentally friendly pats on the back. And if you're unsure about what you can do at your facility, get an expert's opinion. An energy audit takes about a day and is usually offered for free by the utility company in your area.

Insulate Yourself

If your building is badly insulated, almost any cost for an overhaul is going to save you money. Although some walls are practically impossible to insulate after a building is complete, look up. Air readily escapes through an insufficiently insulated ceiling, and that's something that can be insulated after the fact. Barrie says a ceiling can generally be insulated in an afternoon by an untrained person. Also, add insulation around water heaters, hot-water pipes and heating ducts.

Ditto for single-paned windows. Because windows play a role in heating, cooling and ventilation, they are a complex part of energy savings. If possible, put in new windows with multiple layers of insulation. Or at least weather-strip or caulk existing windows. Gaps around windows and doors alone can add up to several feet of air space that just blows money, well, out the window. Curtains or drapes with a white instead of dark backing can add to savings by keeping the sun from acting as a heater during the summer. The cost for new windows will be recouped in about four or five years.