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Top D.C. Building Owners Install Solar Panels As City Sets Ambitious Clean Energy Goal

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Three of D.C.'s top office owners have recently set aside valuable square footage on the rooftops of downtown buildings for solar panels and are donating the clean energy they produce. 

Nixon Peabody solar panels 799 9th st nw
Nixon Peabody and Brookfield's team lifting a solar panel at the opening of the 799 Ninth St. NW installation in 2016

WashREIT, Brookfield Properties and Oxford Properties are participating in the initiative with New Partners Community Solar, a nonprofit created by Nixon Peabody. Executives from each company will discuss their clean energy efforts May 1 at Bisnow's Greater D.C. Solar and Sustainability Summit

The solar panels will pump clean energy into D.C.'s electrical grid at a time when the District is increasingly focused on moving toward renewable energy sources. Mayor Muriel Bowser in January signed a law that calls for the city to reach 100% renewable energy by 2032. 

The law sets building standards that could force commercial property owners to make dramatic improvements to their energy performance in the coming years, but the solar panel installations are a separate, voluntary initiative.

The owners do not receive the energy from the panels to power their buildings, but instead they donate it to the grid and it is given to low-income D.C. residents in the form of credits that reduce their electric bills.

"It may seem a little counterintuitive, but when we look at it based on the footprint of a 200K SF building, the amount of energy produced by these panels would be rather negligible to offset the building's energy use, around 2% of the use, compared to the impact it could have for low-income residents who are going to be the beneficiaries of it," WashREIT Energy & Sustainability Manager Matt Praske said. 

WashREIT's office building at 1775 Eye St. NW
WashREIT's office building at 1775 Eye St. NW

WashREIT provided space on the rooftop of its 1775 Eye St. NW building for a solar panel installation. While the public REIT doesn't receive free energy or rent payments for giving its space to the nonprofit to install solar panels, Praske said it sends a positive signal to its investors and the tenants of its buildings.

"We hear the demand both from tenants to be in sustainable spaces and also from investors who are seeking to understand the sustainability performance of the funds and the REITs they’re putting their money in," Praske said. 

Brookfield installed solar panels through the program at 799 Ninth St. NW, 750 Ninth St. NW and 77 K St. NE. Brookfield Senior Vice President Jackie Duke also said it is important to the company's investors and tenants that it implements clean energy initiatives. She said the firm has looked at investing in its own solar panels, but instead decided the partnership in which New Partners Community Solar finances the installation made more sense for now. 

"We were always interested in solar technology but the paybacks were very long," Duke wrote in an email to Bisnow. "By donating rooftop space in this partnership, we are able to be part of advancing the technology so that it would become more affordable and commonplace in the future."

Oxford Properties heard from its equity partners in the D.C. office buildings it owns, such as Gould Property Co. and Norges Bank, that sustainability is a top priority, Oxford Senior Vice President Chris Mundy said. The company donated rooftop space at 1101 New York Ave. NW and the Gallery Place office building for solar panel installations, which will be activated later this month. 

"A number of our joint venture partners globally and in D.C. are focused on this," Mundy said. "The sustainability piece of those projects is critical to us and critical to our partners."

1101 New York Ave. NW
The office building at 1101 New York Ave. NW

Mundy said having solar panels appeals to the companies that lease space at the buildings, as they compete to recruit employees who increasingly care about the environmental impact of the buildings in which they work.

Tenants also like having rooftops filled with amenities, a growing trend across D.C., but Mundy said installing solar panels does not have to come at the expense of providing social courtyard spaces. At 1101 New York, some of the solar panels have been installed as a canopy that provides shade to part of its rooftop terrace. 

"It’s not an all or nothing," Mundy said. "The concepts complement each other. The rooftop experience has become more experiential, it’s not just a couple of tables and chairs. You want the rooftop activated and a place where people will come and spend time. So the solar aspect is part of that experience. It’s all part of creating something that provides a differentiated experience."

The District is still working to shape and implement the specific policies that will help it reach the 100% renewable energy goal. Duke said she hopes the District works to create policies that will incentivize property owners to install solar panels. 

"I would like to see the District partner more with building owners when developing legislation and also like to see more incentives incorporated," Duke said. 

Praske, Mundy and Duke, plus Nixon Peabody's Jeff Lesk and a host of other experts, will discuss their clean energy initiatives May 1 at Bisnow's Greater D.C. Solar and Sustainability Summit, held at 1101 New York Ave. NW.