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Green Building News

News Briefs

A roundup of recent developments in green building

Duke University applied a textured film to windows in the Fitzpatrick Center in an effort to make them more visible to birds and reduce fatal collisions. The LEED-certified building had been identified as the chief culprit on campus.
Image Credit: Duke Photography

Duke University treats building glass to reduce bird strikes

Duke University has doctored the glass in a LEED-certified building that has been blamed for dozens of bird deaths every year.

In September, the towering windows in the Fitzpatrick Center at the Pratt School of Engineering on the Durham, North Carolina, campus were treated with a film that includes colors and patterns, turning it into “fritted glass,” so birds would be able to see it, according to a post at ConstructionDive.

The building is close to the Atlantic Flyway, a major north-south migration route, and its windows had become an avian death trap. A survey of 45 college campuses by Augustana College put buildings at Duke University at the top of the list for bird fatalities. An on-campus investigation at Duke concluded the Fitzpatrick Center was responsible for 72% of bird deaths there.

“We had a ton of data on our side as well as student support with students saying it was a problem, and they wanted the university to fix it,” graduate student Scott Winton, who led the Duke investigation, told the Duke Chronicle. “At that point, it’s really hard for the university to justify doing nothing.”

Winton said fritted glass may have another advantage — it helps reduce solar gain and thereby increases the energy efficiency of the building.

New PV module claims efficiency record

UPDATED Oct. 13, 2015

SolarCity says it now has the most efficient rooftop solar panel in the world, with a measured efficiency of more than 22%.

The company said that the photovoltaic (PV) module, whose performance was tested by the independent Renewable Energy Test Center, will go into production this month at a California pilot facility, but most of the modules will be produced at SolarCity’s huge new factory in Buffalo, N.Y. Production should reach between 9,000 and 10,000 modules per day when the facility is running at full capacity sometime in 2017.

SolarCity is the largest residential PV installer in the country and acquired PV manufacturer Silevo, which developed the technology for the new PV module last year. SolarCity said in a press release that the new modules are the same size as standard ones but produce between 30% and 40% more power. They also perform better than other modules at high temperatures, allowing more energy production annually than conventional panels.

Claims of supremacy in the battle for high efficiency, however, are best taken with a grain of salt, or at least a close eye to the fine print. Although the new SolarCity modules are at or near the high end of what’s available commercially for residential applications, SolarCity rival SunPower already produces a module with an efficiency of 22.4%, which is listed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as the most efficient module of its type. In addition, a day after the SolarCity announcement Panasonic said it had a module ready for mass production with an efficiency of 22.5%, according to PV Magazine.

More complicated and more expensive types of PV cells have much higher efficiencies. A chart published by NREL shows that the best photovoltaic cells have an efficiency of 46% — but you won’t find them in commercially made residential PV systems. “The 40% cells are a very niche market,” said Keith Emery, a group manager and principal engineer in NREL’s solar performance group. “Right now, the 20-to-22% silicon modules are at the high end of what’s commercially available for residential use.”

“If you have enough caveats, you can make almost anything a record,” he said of SolarCity’s claim. “It’s not necessarily a bogus claim. It’s just a little misleading, that’s all.”

Still, Emery was enthused by the announcement. “I regard it with excitement because it means there’s another player on a high efficiency end of the photovoltaic business,” he said. “One of the economics of these things is the higher the efficiency the lower the cost of energy. If they are still selling it at X dollars a watt, the higher efficiency system will have a lower cost of energy. The name of the game here is not to add to the dollars per watt at all and just raise the efficiency.”

Amazon.com’s wind farm is the target of a suit

A 104-turbine wind farm that would power a data center for online retailer Amazon is the target of a lawsuit filed by a couple claiming the facility would pose a variety of aesthetic and environmental problems.

The News & Observer said last week that construction crews have been building access roads to the site in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties in the northeast corner of North Carolina and plan to pour concrete foundations for the towers early next year.

But a local couple, with help from the conservative Civitas Institute, claim that the project is an expensive boondoggle. Neither Amazon nor project developer Iberdrola are parties to the suit. Instead, the couple is suing the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality in an attempt to force a new regulatory review of the project.

“I’m concerned it will make our beautiful county, quite frankly, ugly,” Jillanne Gigi Badawi told the newspaper. “Each turbine is the size of the Washington Monument. These things are huge monstrosities.” She lives less than a mile from where the nearest turbine would be located.

A new review, which would include studies of wildlife, noise, and shadow flicker, could take more than a year and would probably kill the project. The wind farm must be up and running by the end of 2016 in order to quality for a 30% federal income tax credit, the newspaper said.

Arizona utility offers to withdraw solar fee proposal

Arizona’s largest electric utility is offering to back off its proposed fee increase for customers who own PV systems — an increase that would have seen rates climb from 70 cents to $3 per kilowatt, or up to roughly $21 a month.

Arizona Public Service (APS) said it would drop the request if the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) would agree to open an investigation to determine the actual costs of providing service to customers with PV systems and establish the amount they should pay for a grid connection, according to a story posted at Greentech Media.

APS first proposed the fee increase in April. It now complains opponents have turned the debate into “political theater.”

It may not be theater, but it sure is getting messy. Arizona regulators have been the target of several conflict-of-interest complaints. APS is believed to have spent as much as $3.2 million in elections last year for ACC commissioners in an effort to help its favored candidates into office.

Three of the five commissioners have been asked to recuse themselves from any decisions on PV charges on grounds they are biased against solar. They have refused.

The Arizona Attorney General’s office is looking into texts sent by one of the commissioners, Chairman Bob Stump, to APS and others and seized his telephone in July.

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