Covering warehouses and shopping malls in solar panels could become as common as equipping office spaces with air conditioning, according to a large-scale Canadian installer.
But the realities of commercial real estate may slow the “rapid acceleration” some financial experts are calling for.
“In the last three years, I’ve seen pretty significant percentage jumps in terms of solar going on. We’re seeing it on larger and larger properties,” RESCo Energy president Fidel Reijerse told Yahoo Finance Canada. “[But] I don’t necessarily see good solar being rolled out on every roof in a short period of time.”
Based in Mississauga, Ont., RESCo provides turnkey solar services to commercial and industrial customers across Canada. The company is behind major installations for IKEA Canada, Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre, and the University of British Columbia. Real estate developers Oxford Properties and Cadillac Fairview are also customers.
In May, Morgan Stanley estimated on-site solar would be “in the money,” or cheaper than buying electricity from the grid, by 2025 for 90 per cent of America’s top 50 real estate investment trusts. In a 72-page report, the Wall Street investment bank says it will take about US$500 million in capital spending by the industry to fill roughly 40 billion square feet of available space from U.S. real estate and commercial trucking properties. The analysts predict a “rapid acceleration in distributed/on-site clean energy generation” will cause “material revenue accretion” as well as environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) benefits for the industry.
Canadian real estate development company Dream Unlimited has started small. Lee Hodgkinson, Dream’s head of sustainability and technical services, says solar panels installed on 14 rooftops in Western Canada and the Netherlands have helped the company understand the opportunity.
“It’s profitable, just to be blunt,” Hodgkinson told Yahoo Finance Canada. “We’re seeing attractive un-levered returns of eight per cent across our solar portfolio.”
Dream owns an estimated $24 billion in assets across North America and Europe. Hodgkinson says about 1.3 million square feet of rooftop is currently under consideration for solar deployment.
“That would add another up to 10 megawatts, which would be a 50 per cent increase versus where we currently are,” he said. “We do have 60 million square feet of roof top. So, I do think we’re well-positioned to become one of the largest players in this rooftop solar space.”
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s temporary pause on approving solar and wind energy projects over one megawatt is unlikely to disrupt commercial roof installations, according to Reijerse, since most projects are below that size.
How quickly panels are fixed to roofs will depend on factors unique to each building. These include the age of the roof, the electrical capacity of the building, and how long the owner intends to own the property.
“Those are the types of things that impact the ability to move quickly,” Reijerse said. “You can imagine if a building has a 15-year-old roof, it’s a bit of a challenge to put solar on. Halfway through the life of that solar, you’re going to have to take it off, re-roof, and put it back on. There are costs associated with that.”
Reijerse estimates large real estate investment trusts re-roof just five per cent of buildings in their portfolio each year.
“That’s why you don’t see anybody say, ‘Let’s just roll out [solar on] 100 buildings,” he said.
While Reijerse has dim expectations for a solar boom among today’s commercial buildings, he sees on-site installations becoming as commonplace as air conditioning, as more newly-constructed warehouses, malls, and big-box stores come designed “solar-ready.”
“It’s going in that direction,” he said. “It has become less of a novelty, but it’s not yet at the point where it’s just another building system.”
Jeff Lagerquist is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow him on Twitter @jefflagerquist.