By Pamela Babcock
©2019 Community Associations Institute
Rain or shine, residents of Ladera Ranch in Orange County, Calif., would watch their kids' soccer matches at the community's Cox Sports Park, but they often had to contend with sweltering heat or the elements. While there were no plans for a shelter at the park, it ended up being an added benefit when the community installed hundreds of solar panels to help counter rising energy costs.
Ladera Ranch Maintenance Corp., the community's homeowners association, says it expects to save about $63,000 in electricity costs within the first year of the new solar panel installation. Ladera invested about $434,000 in the project and expects it will pay for itself in five years. And the soccer-watchers now have a “roof " over their heads.
The idea to save on energy with solar was hatched in 2017 by the then board vice president. Many owners in the community already had solar panels on their homes, and association leaders realized that installing solar panels on one of its community buildings would help offset double-digit annual electricity rate increases.
Deciding where to put the solar “array" wasn't simple in the master-planned residential community of about 8,000 single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums and apartments on about 4,000 acres. Ladera Ranch General Manager Ken Gibson, CMCA, AMS, of FirstService Residential, worked over several months with Michael Healy, the association's project reserve capital improvement manager, and several board members to vet potential vendors. After careful review and analysis, they chose Irvine, Calif.- based Revel Energy because of its experience with commercial solar projects, experience in analytics and forecasting, and responsiveness, Gibson says.
The community considered several locations, including on the roofs of a few community clubhouses with swimming pools. Ladera began to zero in on its Avendale Clubhouse, but after meeting with representatives from Revel, Gibson says the association realized panels there may not provide “much bang for the buck."
The Avendale Clubhouse had several drawbacks. First, the square footage of its roof isn't that much larger than that of a large, single-family home, so the numbers “just didn't pencil out," Gibson says. The association considered adding a parking shade structure with solar panels at the clubhouse, but realized that since it's a scenic area and a focal point smack in the middle of the community, that might mar the aesthetics. Ladera challenged Revel “to turn over every rock, look at every square foot of property" to find a better opportunity, Gibson recalls.
Cox Sports Park, which has several soccer and baseball fields that are illuminated well into the evening each day, was next on their radar. Revel Energy ran numbers and quickly identified that a shade structure running the length of the park's main soccer field would have the biggest payback. Ladera Ranch has separate meters for each of its clubhouses and sports parks, so it could quickly see that Cox Sports Park uses the most energy—about $150,000 a year —of any facility.
But better yet, the community would benefit even more because most of the energy consumed there is at night to light fields, when rates are their lowest. During the day, when energy is at a premium, the panels will generate much more energy than the park uses and feed the more expensive power back into the grid so Ladera can earn credit toward further reducing the overall utility costs to operate the park, Gibson explains.
Meanwhile, Gibson says he and others realized that adding a shade structure would be “awesome" for all the parents sitting on the sidelines on a hot summer day dying for some shade cover. “We don't have very much (shade) there. It was kind of a win-win," he says. During construction, the team also was abl e to run conduit during trenching to eventually extend its Wi-Fi to the sideline area.
The $434,000 cost of the project was paid as an operating expense from money in the association's capital improvement budget. The panels are warrantied for 25 years. Ladera estimates it will save more than $6 million by 2043, according to Gibson.
The association posted news of the new solar project on the community's Facebook page and sent out word to other community social media groups, including the Ladera Ranch Mom's Facebook page. Gibson says reaction has been very positive. “There were a lot of thumbs up and a few comments with people giving kudos to the HOA for doing this. So many homeowners in Ladera have added solar to their homes, so I think people were like, 'Great, now our HOA is doing it as well,' " Gibson says.
Ladera has since added bench seating under the structure. Gibson says he's encouraged when he drives past the soccer fields and sees residents under the solar shade enjoying a match.
“When you're out of the sun under it, the temperature drops, and it feels like it's 10 to 15 degrees cooler," he says. “It's really cool to see the hundreds of people that are underneath the shade structure just enjoying it. And it looks like it's just part of the field and it's always been there."
With climate change becoming a growing concern, owners, board members, and managers of common-interest communities should take steps, like Ladera, to live in a more sustainable way, says Leanne Shaw, CMCA, AMS, of Wildernest Property Management in Frisco, Colo.
“Sharing ownership of common resources at the level of an HOA is a downsized replication of how a country or even a continent needs to share responsibility for its consumption of both natural and manmade resources," Shaw says.
Projects to help green a community don't have to be as ambitious or have upfront costs as high as the one at Ladera. Shaw says many smaller initiatives can be implemented to improve energy efficiency, conserve water, and boost recycling. Better yet, governing bodies and utility companies often provide tax incentives and rebates to encourage communities to be greener.
Wildernest manages around 70 communities in Summit County, a region that's home to many popular ski resorts, including Breckenridge and Keystone. Shaw says a “huge inefficiency" Wildernest managers often see is loss of heat from wood-burning fireplaces in units.
In March 2018, Treehouse Condominium Homeowners Association followed what a close-by community, Timber Ridge Homeowners Association, had done two years before, and converted wood-burning fireplaces to gas inside every unit. The move helped reduce the monthly bill to operate boilers supplying heat to the units. Wildernest also has recommended that townhomes it manages schedule energy audits with High Country Conservation Center, a local nonprofit.
Colorado has several laws that help community associations save money, Shaw says. The state's xeriscape laws say community associations can't mandate a certain amount of grass in a yard, regardless of bylaws, while its solar access laws say residential covenants can't prohibit the installation of solar. Xcel Energy, the state's largest energy provider, announced recently that it's aiming for zero-carbon electricity by 2050.
Many Wildernest communities have reached an age where they need to upgrade emergency and common area lighting to newer, more modern fixtures. Shaw says it makes sense for managers to recommend low-energy LED lightbulbs, which can save money in the long haul and improve aesthetics.
“For many board members and active community members with an interest in lowering bills and being more climate-conscious, this was a no brainer," says Shaw, who worked with Watts Up LED, a Denver-based lighting provider, to gauge potential savings and receive rebates from Xcel on many bulbs and ballast fixtures.
Shaw, a native of Wales who moved to Colorado for the winter activities, is currently pursuing a sustainability leadership certificate from Colorado Mountain College. When planning capital projects and improvements, she says sustainability should be factored in “with equal importance to cost, safety, quality, and time frame." Dictating that materials be locally sourced or made from recycled products is a simple mandate to make to a contractor.
In July 2018, Wildernest replaced the rear decks at Aspen Shadows at Wildernest Condominiums in Silverthorne using KW Construction, a local company. KW recommended a locally sourced wood product to lower transportation and shipping costs to the association.
Community associations also can amend rules and regulations to foster improved efficiency and cost savings. A provision could require that door and window replacements be insulated double-panel units, that toilets be replaced with low-flow plumbing, and that exterior light replacements have motion sensors or photocells. Small changes can create new patterns of behavior.
In 2018, Vail Resorts set a goal to have net zero carbon emissions by 2030. “Our entire industry in the mountains relies on Mother Nature bringing us annual snowfall, so global warming doesn't bode well for our future," Shaw says.
“Going greener within our communities is rarely more expensive, nor more difficult," she says.
In some cases, Shaw says it can be difficult to change the mindset of board members or owners who simply don't see the point or who struggle to consider the much longer-term plan.
In the end, Shaw is confident that the local climate action plan, a volunteer group with representatives from area ski resorts, local government, and homeowners, can succeed in promoting the benefits of thinking about the environment and how it begins at home.
Pamela Babcock is a writer and editor in the New York City area.
Sometimes, going too green can make some turn red.
In October, the Denver City Council revised a voter-approved law that would have required “green roofs" or rooftops with vegetation on new construction projects and when roofs were replaced on buildings 25,000 square-feet or larger.
Regardless of whether a community association chose to comply with the new ordinance or make payment in lieu of cash—allowed under some circumstances—the requirements would have been far reaching if not impossible to meet, says Justin Foy, senior vice president of SBSA, a Denver-area architectural engineering firm and past president of the CAI Rocky Mountain Chapter. Foy has been the chapter's representative to the Green Roof Initiative since mid-2017 and is an appointed advisor to a task force offering input to the city at various public meetings.
Many of Denver's community associations anxiously awaited the impact of the voter-approved green roof ordinance, which went into effect January 2018. Soon after the ordinance passed, city officials faced pushback and formed a task force to recommend revisions.
Under the revised ordinance—the rules for which are pending adoption—the city would require buildings 25,000 square-feet and larger to have light-colored, reflective “cool roofs," which are typically made of a highly reflective paint, a sheet covering, or highly reflective tiles or shingles. Owners also would have to satisfy other requirements and could choose from options that include adding green space, funding green space elsewhere, getting green building certification, installing solar, and more. Buildings with five or fewer stories would be required to have cool roofs only, however.
“The new ordinance offers community associations with more flexible and feasible options for compliance," Foy notes. —P.B.
THE GREEN TEAM
Considering investing in a green project? Here are some tips from Ladera Ranch Maintenance Corp. General Manager Ken Gibson, CMCA, AMS, of FirstService Residential:
■ GET IT ALL OUT. Challenge board members and staff to consider many options. “Don't leave anything off the table. We learned firsthand that when we didn't have the Cox Sports Park on our radar at all, we were missing a really good opportunity," says Gibson.
■ CONSIDER A GREEN COMMITTEE. Ladera Ranch was fortunate to have a committed team working on its solar project, but it might make sense to consider forming a green committee that can spend time researching and considering green options.
■ CHALLENGE VENDORS AND CONTRACTORS. Ladera got estimates from several companies and most did exactly what they asked—pumping out estimates for solar on the clubhouse roof. Revel Energy walked Ladera through other options and sliced and diced data. “It didn't cost us anything when they were doing the research. Of course, we could have walked away at any time at that point, but it was just a good partnership," says Gibson. —P.B.
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