Clean Energy in California

Downtown SF (3/10/2009) – MMA Renewable Ventures & Gensler Design
by -- March 10th, 2009

Our second day in the Bay area was spent mostly in downtown San Francisco and we chose to take the famous Hyde-Powell trolley to our first stop, MMA Renewable Ventures.

The trolley took us up one of the steepest hills in San Francisco, and we all agreed that this was the most pleasant way to get to work in the morning.

The Hyde-Powell Trolley waiting for us on Tuesday morning by the Golden Gate Bridge.

MMA Renewable Ventures

At MMA we met with Dan Halperin (a Duke MBA), who explained to us some of the intricacies of solar photovoltaic (PV) financing. MMA uses power purchase agreements (PPA) to finance installation of solar arrays on rooftops and they currently claim 40 MW of solar generating capacity, the second largest amount in the U.S. today. However, to put that number in perspective, 40 MW is about 20 times less than the average coal fired power plant. Dan mentioned that solar markets are currently driven by state mandates such as Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). NC State has actually created a database tracking all of these state-based initiatives called DSIRE.

MMA’s approach of aggregating a diverse array of small-scale projects has helped it mitigate risk especially in the face of a global recession. To demonstrate this strategy, Dan also brought in someone to discuss energy efficiency projects that MMA has been working on. The development of a financing mechanism for energy efficiency similar to the solar PPA is in the works, but proper measurement and verification is necessary and difficult. He encouraged us to keep and eye out for the buzzphrase “White Tags” which apparently is now the new tradable permits for 1 MWh of energy saved.

Gensler Design

Our next stop of the morning was at Gensler Design,, located just off the Embarcadero near the Bay Bridge in a renovated coffee bean bagging facility. As we entered the lobby, we got a very clear sense of the aesthetic and environmental values inherent in green design. The large conference table was made of salvaged wood and there were several sculptures made of wood placed around the office. Local artists are selected to display their work at Gensler’s office for a period of time and we were told that they often quickly sell their work after displaying it.

Gensler’s lobby in San Francisco.

We began our visit with a tour of the office. It was clear that Gensler had put a great deal of effort into designing a great workspace, with many areas to gather and lots of natural light present. We had a chance to check out computer-generated images of some of Gensler’s up and coming design projects as we walked around as well. At the end of the tour we sat down in a classroom style enclosure to hear some more specific details about Gensler’s projects.

Our group being awe-inspired by Gensler’s cool projects.

We were given an in depth look at Gensler’s work with outdoors equipment company REI. They worked closely with REI to develop a more dynamic and sustainable retail environment for their stores in Colorado. One key element was the usage of Solatubes, which reflect desirable solar light into a space without the onus of heat gain.  Other stand-alone projects included Terminal 2 of San Francisco International Airport, which is slated to be LEED certified silver or gold by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Gensler helped REI design their new Round Rock store.

Another presentation demonstrated that Gensler does not only work in the stand-alone buildings business. They are also involved in the master planning of entire communities in places like the one shown below in Tianjin, China. I was particularly interested in their discussion of transportation planning in these communities and the concept of making then “car inconvenient.” The thought process here is that if you make it hard to drive around in a community, less people will choose to drive there. Of course this approach must be balanced with proper access to other options like efficient public transit and enough attractive amenities to bring in residents regardless of accessibility by car.  These are solutions that are much easier to implement at the outset of development as opposed to retroactively, which is unfortunately the case in much of the U.S. However, Newsweek recently ran a story about Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to cut back car ridership on Broadway near Times Square (perhaps one of America’s busiest streets). So if we can do it on Broadway then why not everywhere else!?

One of Gensler’s master planned communities in Tianjin, China.


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