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Green roofs saving green

Aug. 3, 2009
“While installing a green roof may seem like a small step, these upgrades save energy, filter and absorb pollution, and store carbon.” –Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) I know, I know; it sounds all-too-much like “green dreaming,” this idea that ...

While installing a green roof may seem like a small step, these upgrades save energy, filter and absorb pollution, and store carbon.” –Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA)

I know, I know; it sounds all-too-much like “green dreaming,” this idea that “greening” the roofs of commercial buildings in a variety of ways could reduce pollution and save money. But it doesn’t seem so farfetched when companies such as FedEx and quasi-government agencies like the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) are betting big on “green roofs” to help them defray the cost of facility operation.

Let’s start with the USPS: the agency recently just “greened” the roof of its 2.2 million square foot Morgan mail processing facility in midtown Manhattan (seen here at right). Built in 1933 and designated a historic landmark in 1986, the building’s roof as originally constructed could support 200 pounds per square foot. As a result, when the roof was scheduled for replacement in 2007, architects deemed it strong enough to support the weight of the soil, vegetation and other requirements of a green roof.

At nearly 2.5 acres, the Morgan building’s green roof sounds more like a botanical garden, with native plants and trees include Calamagrostis, what the USPS says is “a lush, maintenance-free grass.” Even the 14 orange-hued Ipe Brazilian wood benches that dot the roof are made from lumber certified sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council. [If anything, remembering the word “Calamagrostis” will help out when next playing “Scrabble” I assure you.]

Nice, I’m sure … but what the heck does any of this have to do with saving money or reducing pollution for that matter? Well, for starters, here’s a big one – the USPS says this “green” roof will last up to 50 years, twice as long as the roof it replaced, plus reduce energy usage 30% by 2015, according to Sam Pulcrano, the agency’s vice president-sustainability. Those two factors alone could make a big difference to the bottom line (as one can only imagine how much it costs – in midtown Manhattan, no less – to heat and cool a 2.2 million square foot facility.)

The foliage on the Morgan facility's roof is also going to reduce the amount of contaminants in storm water runoff flowing into New York’s municipal water system from the building, Pulcrano noted – projecting the reduction in runoff to be as much as 75% in the summer and up to 35% during the winter months.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to “green” a roof – as FedEx is proving. Since 2005, the express carrier has installed solar panels on the roofs of several facilities – an effort designed to significantly cut down on the electrical bills for their package sorting hubs. “We … want to identify and implement ways that we can reduce energy use and shrink our carbon footprint,” said David Rebholz (at left), president and CEO of FedEx Ground.

FedEx is currently working on installing its third rooftop solar-electric system at its distribution hub in Woodbridge, N.J., in partnership with BP Solar – a 2.42 megawatt solar power system that will cover approximately 3.3 acres of rooftop space with approximately 12,400 solar panels.

When completed, the system will be capable of producing approximately 2.6 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year and could provide up to 30% of the Woodbridge hub’s annual energy needs, FedEx noted.

[Here’s a short video showing how the solar system is installed on a FedEx hub building.]

It’s also interesting to note that FedEx’s Woodbridge hub – opened in 2000 –sits on more than 80 acres of former “brownfield” once used to stockpile soils dredged from the nearby Raritan River. Soils and groundwater were contaminated with various polluting substances, primarily arsenic., said FedEx, so in order to build the facility, FedEx Ground worked with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection on a remedial action for the site.

Overall, FedEx operates five facilities partially powered by solar-driven systems. Last year, FedEx Freight – the LTL arm of FedEx – installed two solar power systems; a 282-kilowatt system for its sort hub in Whittier, Calif., while equipping another in Fontana, Calif., with a 269-kilowatt system. In 2005, FedEx Express activated a 904-kilowatt system at its Oakland, Calif., hub facility; a system that covers 81,000 square feet of roof space with 5,700 solar panels and meets up to 80% of that facility’s peak energy demand.

FedEx is also currently constructing its Central and Eastern European gateway at the Cologne/Bonn, Germany airport – slated for completion in 2010 – that incorporates a 1.4-megawatt solar power system.

The interesting thing in all of this to me – whether a commercial building’s roof is literally turned “green” with plant life or figuratively made “green” with the addition of solar panels – is the potential for some serious cost savings. We all know the cost of electricity is going in one direction (that would be “up,” if any of you were at all in doubt) and that more and more regulations are popping up among localities mandating reductions in greenhouse gases.

What better way to kill two birds with one stone as the old saying goes: reducing one’s “carbon footprint” to stay ahead of fines, while cutting back on energy consumption (and by extension saving cash). I’m not saying this is a “green bullet” by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one more thing to consider as those transportation companies operating warehouses, terminals, and other big facilities look for ways to cut costs and meet and ever burgeoning plethora of “green regulations” at the same time.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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