Edition: November 2006

Bob Noble Taps Into Solar’s New Roots

With energy trees that shade cars while powering
the grid, his Envision partnership with Kyocera
sees opportunity in parking lots everywhere

His ‘shady’ concept for Kyocera’s carports garnered Bob Noble’s Envision several awards for environmentally friendly design. (photo/alandeckerphoto.com)

Tucker Sadler Architects and Kyocera are partnering to make parking cars under trees an energizing, profitable experience — because these groves will be gathering the sun and converting it to electricity. The alliance between the distinguished full-service architecture firm and the forward-thinking technology is being finalized this month as the companies launch Envision, headed by Bob Noble, to get the trees to the pavement.

“The business model is to provide turn-key, single-point-of-contact services to the property owners,” says Noble, Envision’s CEO and largest shareholder. “There are very few companies that have the capability of doing all of that, and Envision Solar is the only company that we can find worldwide whose primary business is this turnkey solution.”

Until Envision, companies and individuals seeking solar power have had to deal with many professionals and manufacturers, the government permit process and the power company to get their system up and running.

“For all property owners to have a renewable energy installation, there is such a large learning curve, even for owners in the business,” says Noble, 54. “The integration of the site plan, the system buildings and the photovoltaic systems and all of the electrical mechanical design, all of this to be coordinated through design entitlement with a planning authority, then engineered, then brought to the site, fabricated, installed on the structures, then set into operation and maintained.”

Despite the aching need for more electricity, the cost of generating electricity usually exceeds the cost of just buying it from a power company. The smallest of systems recently had been priced at about $30,000 to build. Larger installations cost much more.

But this year the price went down. With the passage of the state’s Solar Power Initiative, businesses, municipalities and individuals can look to the state for rebates of between $2.50 and $2.80 per watt generated by their own systems. And the federal government is giving out a tax credit to boot.

“The subsidy program is the driver behind the launch of this company,” says Mark Voitek, the vice president of sales for Kyocera Solar. “The technology for solar power is there but the cost needs to come down.”

Envision’s primary market will be commercial, at least at first. “There’s a lot of parking space out there in the world,” Voitek explains. “And businesses can use financial advantages like depreciation and amortization, on top of the tax credits and rebates, to make this a real financial benefit. Businesses and municipalities are particularly aware that the cost for power can only increase over time, so controlling that cost is a very real benefit to them.”

Kyocera Solar comes to the Envision alliance on strong, thick legs. The Kearny Mesa-based company is a subsidiary of Kyocera Corp., a Japanese global conglomerate. The Kyoto-based world headquarters are housed in an environmentally designed building that incorporates a large solar power generating system and a co-generation facility. In San Diego, Kyocera is the largest privately held electricity generator in the city, creating more than 100 percent of its power through solar panels and a gas-fired CDO-generation system.

“We already have a business that does commercial and residential work and we do add a carport here and there,” says Voitek. “With the photovoltaic expertise of Kyocera and the architectural and engineering expertise that Bob Noble brings, Envision has designed a really efficient and practical product that can be used easily.”

Coupled with the recent mainstreaming of net metering, which allows private power makers to feed their excess electricity into the nation’s power grid and get the power back later — a sort of electricity banking system — solar power has become a lot more viable for businesses and homeowners.

The idea for carport power packs started when Kyocera hired Noble’s Tucker Sadler Architects to design the solar carports for the parking lots on top of its Balboa Avenue offices. Kyocera wanted to create shaded parking and put its own photovoltaic panels on top.

“We embraced the concept and developed a design for the Solar Tree with Kyocera,” Noble says. “The tree is a metaphor, but appropriate in that it has a column, branches, and a tap root, really the foundation, and then the canopy. Instead of a canopy of leaves, it’s the photovoltaic panels, which produce electrical energy. We consider it a living structure.”

The 25-tree grove was completed in May 2005. It since has produced more energy than predicted, about 427,000-kilowatt hours the first year, the equivalent requirement for 68 average homes for a full year. Each solar tree provides shade for eight to 10 vehicles and the “tree-like” design means no columns for cars to scrape as they move in and out of the spaces.

“It doesn’t encumber the parking spaces,” Noble says. “We incorporated environmental design elements in the project like bioswales, landscaped areas that collect rainwater. The water travels through the swales, and it helps purify the water before it goes into the storm drain system.”

The trees and swales earned an AIA design award this year and later an SDG&E energy efficiency award. The Urban Land Institute’s San Diego chapter also noticed the design, and gave the project an innovation award. The San Diego Regional Energy Office honored Kyocera with a Sandee Award in 2006 for special achievement in energy by a medium-to-large business.

A New Business Takes Shape

Kyocera’s Solar Tree groves provide cool coverage for cars while growing electrical energy at the same time.

As the architectural firm and the manufacturing company worked on the unique design, the idea of building a manufactured system to simplify and economize the design so it could be mass produced at low cost sprouted and the Solar Groves idea took root.

For Noble, it became a new career. With a long history as an environmentally minded designer devoted to sustainable design, he just gave up the CEO’s position at Tucker Sadler to partner Greg Muller so Noble could focus on Envision. (Noble, Muller and a third Tucker Sadler partner, Art Castro, own the majority of Envision’s shares and the company operates out of Tucker Sadler’s office space Downtown in the NBC Building.)

The chance to mainstream solar energy generation by making it accessible, effective and easy for homes and businesses just seems like the right idea at the right time.

One advantage of developing solar groves in parking lots is the ease of construction, high electricity production and an abundance of places to build.

“All you need to do is fly over commercial and industrial areas anywhere in the world and you’ll see the parking lots are the opportunity,” Noble says. “That’s where the sun is. Rooftops are too small. Building rooftops have mechanical systems, elevator overruns, stairs, vents, a variety of obstructions that often interfere. The other thing is roof penetrations; you don’t want to penetrate your waterproof membrane. So in many cases the opportunity is much greater in the parking lots.”

Commercial parking lots also provide the power when it is most needed.

“The peak of need for electricity is around 4 p.m. on weekdays — 100 hours a year create 16 percent of the power generators’ peak demand,” says Irene Stillings, the executive director of the San Diego Regional Energy Office. “If we can supply that electricity when the sun is burning brightest, we’ll need no more power plants.”

The fledgling company, financed in part by investors, has an initial goal of securing three to six major contracts with large businesses and municipalities, contracts for $4 million to $6 million. Kyocera’s grove cost about $3 million before the application of slightly more than $1 million in subsidies and incentives.

The grove has become something of a tourist attraction for builders and property owners across the state.

“We have a pretty extensive list of candidate projects, owners of parking lots who wish to have solar groves, and they include private commercial developers in Los Angeles and public agencies in Southern and Northern California,” Noble says.

Envision has designs on capturing a diverse market.

“We have designs for covering four cars. We are developing a residential design that will cover either one or two cars, and any multiple larger than that,” Noble says. “It’s easier than putting solar panels on your roof. The way we’re developing it is as a do-it-yourself kit. The homeowner can put in the footings, very simply, and erect the Envision Port themselves. We get asked daily: ‘Do you have an Envision Solar carport for my house?’ When you get asked daily, you try to satisfy demand.”

The challenge to satisfy the demand for solar power, which is expected to increase by 30 percent a year for the next 10 years, will come in the raw materials market, says Tom Dyer, a 35-year veteran of the solar power industry. Dyer’s first project was putting solar panels on satellites for NASA.

“We know the market will be at least 10 times what it is today. The only thing that’s not certain is how fast the curve will grow,” Dyer says. “There are periodic shortages of raw silicon — we compete with the semiconductor industry for that supply — and there’s a shortage now. As solar power moves from the niche market into the mainstream, I expect that will change.”

You also can expect that Bob Noble and Envision will be there to lend a hand to plant a tree.