On Jan. 30, County Commission expected to adopt new resolution modifying efforts to reduce fossil-fuel consumption in powering new and renovated county buildings

Commissioners point to rising costs for measures approved in 2006

Image from the Architecture 2030 Challenge website

Following a Jan. 10 County Commission discussion that resulted in a unanimous vote, the board members on Jan. 30 will have the opportunity to approve a new resolution regarding steps to reduce fossil-fuel consumption in county buildings.

The goal, as stated in the motion that Commissioner Neil Rainford made on Jan. 10, will be for staff to work with firms hired for county construction initiatives to try to design the buildings so 60% of the operating energy will come from sources other than fossil fuels, such as solar panels.

The proposed resolution, which will be one of the items on the board’s Jan. 30 Consent Agenda of routine business matters, says the following:

“For new construction and renovation projects of Sarasota County buildings, Sarasota County will strive to achieve a minimum delivered fossil-fuel energy consumption performance reduction standard of sixty percent of the U.S. average for that building type as defined by the U.S. Department of Energy.”

On Nov. 28, 2023, Rainford won his colleagues’ support for the county’s Capital Projects Department staff to review the effects that a 2006 county resolution has had on the expenses for county projects.

As Carolyn Eastwood, director of Capital Projects, pointed out during her Jan. 10 presentation to the commissioners, adoption of that resolution made Sarasota County the first county in the nation to agree to what was called the Architecture 2030 Challenge.

“Starting in 2010,” she continued, “we were to achieve a 60% reduction level [in the use of fossil fuels].” By 2015, that figure was to rise to 70%, she added, with 80% the goal in 2020.

Then, by 2030, new or renovated structures were to use no fossil fuel energy in their operations; they would be carbon-neutral, as noted in a slide she showed the board. That status was to be achieved through sustainable design strategies, the purchase of renewable energy credits and on-site generation of renewal energy, Eastwood explained.

This is one of the graphics that Carolyn Eastwood of Capital Projects showed the board members on Jan. 10. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“For the large building program we have currently,” Eastwood said, “we’re at the 80% reduction level.”

In 2020, she noted, staff did undertake a comprehensive review of the 2030 Challenge.

Among the findings, she said, were that all county buildings constructed since 2005 were designed to meet the highest feasible energy-saving goals. However, some of those structures could not manage the target savings for various reasons, Eastwood added. Among those reasons were maintenance issues, and budget and site constraints, she noted.

After 2016, she added, projects generally were designed to be solar-ready, to ensure they could accommodate the installation of solar panels when that would be financially feasible.

Determining cost savings from use of clean energy, Eastwood noted, “is a little complicated.”

Another slide she showed the board provided details about the impacts that the 2030 Challenge is having on project costs. Those included the following:

  • Evaluating only upfront expenses “does not take into account the significant benefits in reduced operating costs from efficiency and solar measures. Annual savings compound into the future.”
  • Each new edition of the Florida Building Code includes higher code compliance requirements related to energy performance. “The difference between ‘code minimum’ and the current reduction target fluctuates.
  • “Some of the costs associated with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or Green Globes Certification would be the same costs associated with the 2030 Challenge.”
  • The expense of solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, the cost of energy and the expense of building components “have changed over time.”

Staff also analyzed the expense of solar panels used on past and ongoing projects, Eastwood continued.

Although six projects completed after 2015 were to achieve the 70% mark in reduction of the use of fossil fuels, she said, only three successfully met that goal through the use of solar energy. The solar photovoltaic (PV) expense of those projects ranged from approximately 1.93% to 2.25% of the construction budget, she added.

The projected solar PV costs for two county administration construction initiatives underway are anticipated to be in the range of 3.3% to 3.5% of the budget, to meet the 80% reduction level, she pointed out.

Based on past expenses, Eastwood said, staff anticipates that the cost of meeting the 2030 Challenge for future projects could be up to 5.5% of the total construction budget.

However, she did note that the new South County Courthouse was constructed with the allocation of $492,000 for solar panels. The annual bill from Florida Power & Light Co. for that facility, she added, is $49,844. The solar panels save the county $33,600 a year, Eastwood said, and the system has a 25-year warranty. Therefore, the solar panels should pay for themselves in 15 years, with another 10 years of savings on top of that, she noted.

This is the slide with details about the South County Courthouse. Image courtesy Sarasota County

At the conclusion of her remarks, Commissioner Mark Smith, a long-time architect with an office on Siesta Key, pointed out that, in 2006, he was the vice president of the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In that role, he continued, he advocated for the County Commission at that time to join the 2030 Challenge. “I think it’s a wonderful goal,” Smith added.

However, he noted the uncertainties related to the solar panel supply chain in recent years, with so many of the systems built in China. “I think it may be prudent for Sarasota County to keep that [Challenge] goal but not tie our hands,” Smith added, “because of the economy and prudent use of taxpayer money. We should always see a payback” from including solar panels on structures, “and we shouldn’t be losing money to do the right thing, even if it is the right thing.”

Perhaps the 2006 ordinance could be tweaked, Smith suggested, to make the 2030 Challenge goal aspirational.

Commissioner Rainford responded that he thought Smith’s comments “were pretty much dead-on. … I think there’s definitely aspirational wants/needs. The community demands that in many instances.”
Nonetheless, Rainford talked of his concern about “the burden on the taxpayer.” That was why he raised the issue in late November, he said.

“Obviously,” he continued, “with the growth that Sarasota County’s experienced,” many projects are being planned. Cost-cutting measures will be necessary, Rainford noted, to account for inflationary factors, labor shortages and other problems.

Still, he agreed with Smith that a revised resolution should be aspirational, with the County Commission to consider the potential of each new project to comply with the 2030 Challenge goals.

Rainford also pointed out that, thanks to technological advancements, the quality of solar energy “is at least doubling every year …”

He did ask Eastwood whether the warranty on the panels atop the South County Courthouse covers full replacement of the system, if necessary.

Eastwood replied that she believes the company would have to repair or replace the panels to achieve the target level of fossil fuel energy reduction included in the warranty. “There is a little bit of degradation allowed,” she added, “but not a significant amount.”

Moving away from the ‘aspirational’ approach

Commissioner Neil Rainford. File image

Rainford later voiced concern about making the 2030 Challenge reduction levels aspirational, because that could affect project budgets.

“I would be in favor of repealing [the 2006 resolution],” Rainford said.

In response to a question that Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked, Eastwood indicated that the 60% fossil-fuel energy reduction mark in county projects is attainable.

When Cutsinger then asked whether the county had obtained any grants from FPL to help with the shift to solar power, Eastwood told him staff had not done so.

The designs of some buildings do lend themselves more easily to use of solar panels, Cutsinger pointed out. Still, he said, he also believes the 2030 Challenge goals should be aspirational.

“The other key issue for me,” Cutsinger continued, is that “a lot of solar companies are going bankrupt,” so 25-year warranty would not mean anything in those situations.

And with routine improvements in the design of solar panels, he said, “I’d hate to see us get locked into [the use of solar technology.]”

Commissioner Joe Neunder emphasized the word challenge in the 2030 Challenge. While he voiced support for wiring new structures so they could use solar power, he also favored the aspirational approach to a reduction in the use of fossil fuels to power county buildings.

Again, Rainford proposed repealing the 2006 resolution, noting that the board members could have a future discussion about the use of solar power “on a case-by-case basis.”

Chair Michael Moran also expressed concerns about burdening taxpayers and solar companies going out of business.

“I think the prudent thing to do would be to work on the language [in the resolution] and make it aspirational,” Smith said. Opportunities to reduce the use of fossil fuels in building operations will arise, he noted. For example, Smith continued, LED lighting is a cost-saving measure. “I would like to see us not abandon [the 2030 Challenge goals] altogether.”

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