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Solar-powered shopping

Major shopping center owner Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield has ramped up the installation of solar power at its shopping facilities, the latest project involving solar installations at projects in California and New Jersey.

By Diane Mettler

In 2020, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW), a global developer of shopping centers and other retail destinations with its headquarters in Paris, France, completed solar installations in three of its most innovative and productive shopping centers in the United States, bringing its lofty goal of reducing greenhouse emissions that much closer.

"URW has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions across our group by 50 percent by 2030," says Paul Kurzawa, Executive Vice-President of U.S. Operations for URW. "It's a big move, especially when it comes to commercial real estate. But we've set that goal for ourselves, and that's what we're going to do."

URW's global environmental initiative, entitled "Better Places 2030", marks the first time a retail real estate company has launched such a strategy on such a global scale. Not only is the company looking at solar installations, but their commitment also includes direct emissions, indirect emissions, tenant energy consumption, as well as employee and visitor transportation.

"At the highest priority, we're committed to our sustainability efforts across the board—not just solar, but across the board," says Kurzawa.

Reducing greenhouse emissions has been an ambition of the organization for a number of years, beginning in late 2015, and including the 2018 completion of a 15,000 solar panel array at Westfield Topanga and The Village in Los Angeles. Currently, URW has seven solar power installations operating in the U.S., the most recent being the three completed in 2020, located in Santa Clara, California, San Diego, California and Paramus, New Jersey.

For the Valley Fair solar facility, located in Santa Clara, URW partnered with Pacific Gas and Electric to install 3,800 URE (United Renewable Energy) solar panels, bringing the total to 8,018 panels within Valley Fair's power system. In addition, they used Sunny Tripower inverters, from SMA Solar Technology. Today, Valley Fair generates nearly 3.9 gigawatt hours (GWh) of clean energy a year.

 
  

At the Westfield UTC shopping center, URW teamed with San Diego Gas and Electric to add 2,800 solar panels; it used the same brand of solar panels and inverters as it did for the Valley Fair project, for a total of 3,513 panels in its San Diego shopping center's system. Westfield can generate over 1.9 GWh of clean energy annually—roughly enough energy to power 570,000 homes.

In New Jersey, Garden State Plaza's solar power system was installed together with Public Service Enterprise Group (PSE&G) and includes 3,510 URE panels, and SMA Sunny Tripower inverters for a total capacity of over 1.3 megawatts (MW). It is now producing more than 1.7 GWh of clean energy each year.

For all three projects, URW relied on Altec Building Systems to provide electrical, Furino & Sons for the steel erection, and Sustineo, headquartered out of San Diego, California as its general contractor.

Each system was designed and engineered to maximize power production. Garden State Plaza is a steel 'superstructure' of columns, jack beams, cross beams and purlins. It's a 'load side tap' on a pre-existing Westfield transformer. The company fabricated extensions to the busbars and landed six sets of three-phases plus the neutral to handle 1.05MW-AC of power. Valley Fair is a steel 'double T structure' design of columns, W-beams and purlins, says the company.

"To open up three projects in a year during a pandemic is really spectacular," says Kurzawa. "I think we found a way to continue with our clean energy commitment, to do it in a safe manner, and now we have them online at a time when our businesses are starting to ramp back up. Our retailers are doing more business, so it actually worked out really well."

All three new installations are fully functional, and operating as projected. Most of the energy generated from the solar goes back into the shopping centers, to power the common areas which tenants pay for, saving them money.

 
 

Currently, URW has seven solar power installations operating in the U.S., the most recent being the three completed in 2020, in Santa Clara, California, San Diego, California and Paramus, New Jersey.

  

For the rest of the nearly 30 shopping centers across the U.S., URW purchases renewable energy credits to supplement what they generate out of their seven solar shopping centers.

URW has its own internal design, development and construction teams, but it also employs local third-party engineers to help the internal teams throughout the process. They also contract solar panel vendors to install the solar panels. To maintain the solar systems, URW hires a third party contractor.

"The systems are on a routine preventative maintenance and cleaning schedule throughout the year to make sure we're operating them efficiently, and getting as much power as possible from them," says Kurzawa. "Of course there are installation issues that come up, but they're not issues that are unmanageable. It goes to the testament of the technical skills of our internal teams, together with the vendors that we use that we're able to pull these off, particularly during a very difficult time. We could not be more proud."

Across the U.S., URW's solar panel arrays now comprise a total capacity of over 10.6 megawatts (MW) and can generate 16.7 gigawatt hours (GWh) of clean, renewable energy. In addition, URW's solar panels in the country are projected to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by approximately 11,800 metric tons each year, equivalent to the amount of greenhouse gases absorbed by nearly 15,400 acres of tree-packed forests.

 

In 2020, URW received the Excellence in Green Power Use award from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its aggressive use of alternative power sources in its malls. More than 54 percent of energy usage in the company's malls is emission-free due to the deployment of on-site solar energy, and with the purchase of renewable energy certificates, URW addressed 50 percent of emissions from its properties in 2020.

 
  

"For us, a lot of this is multi-faceted," says Kurzawa. "It's not only about being able to reduce our energy usage, saving money in terms of our costs, but it's also about the costs that spill down to our retailers. It reduces their costs and reduces their carbon footprint, and therefore, we are doing what we can for the community to ensure that we are doing our part in terms of the thoughtful use of energy."

Kurzawa adds: "I think that municipalities and various jurisdictions across the country appreciate the need for renewable energy. And so I think that they're quite friendly in that regard. We are able to come to permitting agreements without much hassle."

The biggest consideration when planning a solar installation is the engineering that goes into the solar power arrays, to ensure they are structurally sound and secured in the appropriate way to make them cost-effective from an infrastructure standpoint. When possible, URW tries to combine the new installations with planned upgrades. "We've become experts in being able to retrofit and rebuild projects and keep the shopping centers open and operating. With each installation, we've been able to fine tune that."

Ever conscious of the "Better Places 2030" goal, URW continues to evaluate their remaining assets to make certain they can maximize the efficiency of electrical generation in a manner that also reduces greenhouse emissions.

 
  

"With every project, we're a little bit smarter the next time around," says Kurzawa. "We're keeping a keen eye on the advancement of technology, too. Because as we go through and continue to look at our portfolio for new opportunities, we want to ensure we're not only learning from what we've done in the past, but we're also leveraging the advancement in technology to be able to install what is most efficient and when."

One of the elements that come into play when URW considers upgrades in their technology is timing. "Our solar systems are relatively new, so we are on the forefront of what's out there. We already are using the latest and greatest," says Kurzawa. "But I'm sure that in five years' time, there's probably going to be something else that comes up, and we'll have to evaluate whether or not it makes sense at that time."

Kurzawa is convinced there will be a miniaturization of more efficient solar powered cells, which will allow for much more electricity to be generated requiring much smaller space.

"With more efficient and smaller solar cells, we may be able to generate three times as much electricity in half the amount of space that we use today. This gives us an opportunity to use our shopping centers and our real estate in ways that can actually feed more power back into the grid, to further materially impact our communities in a positive way."

He also feels there will be other determining factors for technological upgrades, as more and more governments around the world, including the U.S., are aware that global warming is a reality with an end date. "The Biden Administration is contemplating sustainability initiatives. That could bring with it some rebate programs which could flow down to the state and local levels that may make it easier for us and others to invest in this sort of technology installations for their assets, but also gives us the ability to make changes, up to more efficient technology."

Another achievement worthy of mention is that last year URW received the Excellence in Green Power Use award from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its aggressive use of alternative power sources in its malls. More than 54 percent of energy usage in the company's malls is emission-free due to the deployment of on-site solar energy, and with the purchase of renewable energy certificates, URW addressed 50 percent of emissions from its properties in 2020.

Being recognized by the EPA is a tremendous source of pride for URW. The recognition indicates that others are noticing how URW is thoughtfully using its real estate to achieve its own "Better Places 2030" goal.

"I'm proud to work for an organization that takes the time and thought to actually be that prescriptive in terms of what it's doing from a sustainability standpoint," says Kurzawa. "We actually go and do what we say we're going to do. I'm really pleased that we did something that was recognized by the highest agency in the U.S. for monitoring sustainable energy and initiatives. That achievement is another acknowledgement that we're on the right track."

That is, indeed, something to be proud of.

 


Q2 2021