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Upstate NY office makes more energy than it takes


RHINEBECK, N.Y. (AP) -- Northeast winters can challenge even the greenest of buildings. Solar panels struggle on dreary days. Insulation is tested by subzero temperatures.

So the owners of Hudson Valley Clean Energy are laying claim to a conservation coup. Their unremarkable looking headquarters 90 miles north of New York City is "zero net energy," meaning it makes more energy than it takes over a year.

If the claim is verified in the coming months by the advocacy group Northeast Sustainable Energy Association, the company is eligible for a $10,000 prize for the "best" net-zero energy building from New England to Maryland. Just as importantly, company president Jeff Irish and vice president John Wright will get official bragging rights for a building that runs an electricity surplus in the Northeast.

"This can be replicated for any size commercial building," Irish said. "Any doctor's office, a lawyer's office, a small store."

Irish and Wright run this business designing and installing renewable energy systems for homes and business around the Hudson Valley. It made sense to practice what they peddled when they began building their own 5,472 square foot office and warehouse in 2006. Once they moved in, they attempted to run an energy surplus over one year, beginning July 2, 2007.

Power comes from solar panels on the roof's south slope. Under a "net-metering" program, the building draws electricity when the sun is absent and pushes it back into the grid when it's bright. Water is heated by a separate solar panel.

Heat and air conditioning comes from a geothermal system that loops liquid from 500 feet below ground. The system relies on a steady subterranean temperature of around 55 degrees to help keep the office space cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The trick for a zero-net energy building in upstate New York is to "bank" enough excess electricity in the sunny summer to more than cover needs in the winter. Irish wasn't sure if they would make it. By February, the sun's puny power couldn't match the need of 25 employees' computers, printers, fax machines, milling machines and appliances. There were a few winter days when no energy was generated because of snow on the solar panels. But the building started running energy surpluses again in May and came out ahead by July 2. Irish will now send in his documentation to the NESEA, which will consider the applications early next year.

The association has offered the award for three years without a winner. Executive director David Barclay said while there have been a handful of applicants, none met all the criteria, which includes achieving zero-net energy in a continuously occupied building (no weekend homes) and in a way that is practical and reproducible. For instance, the applicant who dammed up a mountain stream for hydro-power did not win because most people do not have nearby streams handy.

"We want to be able to demonstrate that this is possible to do," Barclay said, "and frankly not that difficult to do."

Even with the solar and geothermal units, Irish and Wright would not have succeeded without lots of insulation. Their metal-clad building is cocooned in foam, from the 10 inches of soy-based stuff sprayed between the roof rafters to the boards beneath the concrete slabs.

It also helps that the pair are energy conservation fiends. Signs posted next to switches remind employees to turn off the lights, which are compact fluorescent. Computers are shut off at night to reduce "phantom load." Appliances are high efficiency Energy Star.

None of this is groundbreaking. Some of this stuff, like the lights, can be picked up at Lowe's. But as Irish notes, "what we're doing differently is putting the pieces together."

Commercial zero-net energy buildings are still a novelty. But that's likely to change. As gasoline prices soared this summer, the federal Department of Energy launched a "Zero-Net Energy Commercial Building Initiative" to help push along the technologies to the mass market.

The big hurdle for many consumers is upfront cost. Even for a home, a geothermal system and a solar array can run tens of thousands of dollars.

Irish figures the solar cells, insulation, geothermal system and other pieces more than tripled their construction costs, from $44,500 to $149,975. But he maintains they are saving money because the energy efficiency more than makes up for the higher mortgage payment. Their monthly heating bill is zero and their electrical bill is about $22 (the minimal cost for the privilege of hooking up to the grid).

Other people are apparently making the same calculations. Irish said business is good despite the lousy economy. They plan on adding more employees, even though it will mean a larger energy draw.

"We'll probably put a couple of solar panels on the roof to cover it," Irish said.

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