Low-income apartment building in downtown Seattle goes solar

June 25, 2013 – Source

Seattle developer Goodman Real Estate is making a big bet on solar power in downtown Seattle.

The company, one of the Puget Sound region’s most active developers, thinks that the newly installed solar system will be able to help heat a century-old building in the Chinatown/International District.

In the gloomy, gray Pacific Northwest that seems implausible. And it would be if you were talking about a photovoltaic system rather than a solar thermal system, which is part of the hybrid heating system that has been installed at the Addison on Fourth, the new name of the old Downtowner Apartments at Fourth Avenue South and South Main Street.

The installation of the hybrid solar-thermal system is the latest chapter for Addison on Fourth. Originally called the New Richmond Hotel, the Army took over the building during both world wars and used it has a hospital. In 1971, the building was converted to low-income apartments, and last year Goodman bought the building for just over $12.5 million.

Goodman is wrapping up a major renovation, and the 254 units will still be rented to people with low incomes.

A key part of the renovation was the installation of 450 solar-thermal tubes on the roof. The tubes are about 3 inches in diameter, and each has a copper “fin” in the middle. A key to understanding how solar thermal works is knowing that there’s no air in the tube. This shuts out Seattle’s cool environment.
“All that can reach [the fin] is the sunlight. That’s what makes solar thermal so much more efficient than photovoltaic,” said Barry Andersen, CEO of Net Zero Impact Limited Liability Co., the Seattle company that designed and installed the Addison on Fourth’s heating system. “It doesn’t care about our cloudy Northwest temperatures.”

The energy from the fins is enough to heat water to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. This pre- heated water runs into two gas boilers that deliver heat to radiators in the building’s apartments and commercial spaces, and solar-heated water that is 120 degrees is piped to the units for domestic use.

In addition to the solar tubes, Net Zero installed new high-efficiency steam and hot-water boilers, new electronic controllers, gas lines and other equipment.

Andersen said the total cost of the system, including installation, was roughly $400,000. The estimated savings from the hybrid solar-thermal system will be $60,000 a year over what the building had been paying for heat to Seattle Steam, a private utility, Andersen said.

But thanks to federal tax credits and grants as well as utility rebates, Goodman Real Estate will recoup its investment from the new heating and hot-water system within three years, according to Net Zero Impact.

So why isn’t everyone in Seattle going thermal solar? Andersen said it’s because when people hear “solar-thermal” they automatically think “photovoltaic solar,” which don’t work on cloudy days.

The system at Addison on Fourth is the largest to date for Net Zero Impact, a 6-year-old company. Net Zero works with the owners and managers of large buildings and businesses that need a lot of hot water, such as breweries. The economy of scale is too small for single-family houses because the upfront cost of solar-thermal systems is too high.

Andersen said he thinks that as the owners and managers of downtown Seattle buildings on Seattle Steam’s system move to heating systems like the Addison’s, they’ll leave Seattle Steam. Yet Seattle Steam, a private utility, will have to maintain the same amount of infrastructure to serve a dwindling number of buildings.

You’d think that Seattle Steam would not like solar thermal, but the company is actually embracing it and wants to make solar-thermal part of its expanding network.

“The nice thing about solar thermal is it’s a fabulous technology. We are very interested in it,” said Stan Gent, Seattle Steam’s president and CEO. “We think it has a significant role to play in a low-carbon future.”

Gent said that today, Seattle Steam generates heat from natural gas and burning clean wood. The company wants to expand into South Lake Union and Yesler Terrace, and Gent said “solar thermal has a major role to play” in this. Large solar-thermal installations could be part of Seattle Steam in the future.

George Petrie, president and CEO of Goodman Real Estate, said his company thinks the Addison’s heating system “will be one of the most efficient systems we’ve installed.”

He added the renovation of the building is nearly done, and that units are around 500 square feet and lease for approximately $975 a month, including utilities.

Petrie said that Goodman spent a lot of money on the overall renovation, which included a seismic upgrade, but he declined to provide the total cost.

Goodman Real Estate