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Marcos Martinez's picture

Solar Technology for Libraries

Would libraries have an attractive return of investment if Solar technology were installed at this time?

I understand various factors would affect the ROI such as location, square footage, etc.

William Lull (non-member)'s picture

Green energy strategy depends on what the subject "library" is.  Sometimes it usually is a mixture of these:

A library can be like a commericial public building, and can use strategies that work there.  A good place to look is at WalMart.  They are very progressive in their energy planning.  The only widespread "solar" technique they seem to be using is toplight daylights.  They are small skylights located in the ceiling/roof at regular intervals, much like typical 2x4 fluroescent fixtures.  You can see them in this picture (from my local WalMart):


While there are many other energy conservation measures that could be considered, this is the only "solar" one, passive or active, that is generally used with success.  Of course the main drawback is that you have to have a ceiling that is a roof.  Many libraries will have this, many more will have little or none of this opportunity.

Note well that even with the skylights, electric lighting is still needed.  If the skylights were bigger...?  You would still need the suppelmental electric lighting, possibly more.  It's been proven time and time again that large aperture (big) daylighting wastes energy.  You can have some nice views, but it wastes energy.

In some areas with attractive climate and utility rates, photvoltaic arrays or wind turbines (if you consider them "solar") can be cost effective.  Often solar or wind will be better, sometimes both are indicated.  But this is all on a purely energy replacement basis, and is nothing special or unique to libraries, in contrst to any other public-occupied commercial building.

If the library is more like a research center, with specific lighting needs, as also illustrated in the picture above, there will be task lighting needs that cannot effectively be met by daylighting.  (If there were a way, WalMart would be doing it!)

If the library has preservation goals (generally a non-circulating collection), then many solar and energy conservation approaches can actually cause problems.  Aggressive green actions, like daylighting, economizer cooling, timeclocking and night/unoccupied setbacks, can cause rapid deterioration, even if mold and vermin are not an issue.  Of course, if they are, they become overriding factors to avoid.

The best approach for libraries is to know what the goals are for their primary energy-using systems (HVAC, lighting), and see how those goals can best be met.  Solar may or may not be involved.  Just as WalMart does a lot of things, the only consistent solar measure is the toplight skylights.

Marcos Martinez's picture

You bring up very good points, William. Let me refine my question to just public libraries. Public libraries, I think, have great potential. Especially libraries that will be or have housed themselves in what used to be a big box store (such as WalMart). Below is a link to my post on what one city is doing. Evidently, installing solar panels on the roof of a large one-story library would not be sustainable or good on the ROI according to the architects and city commissioners.


Also, since we've brought in WalMart in this discussion, I would like to provide a link to an article that discusses a WalMart in Dallas, TX area that has gone above and beyond for a big box. Check it out.




William Lull (non-member)'s picture

If by "public libraries," you mean libraries that have external funding, like municipal or university libraries, then doing things like solar panels is not an appropriate decision for the library to make.  The solar panels could be anywhere in the city or on campus, and have no merit being on the roof of the library.  In fact, they are better elsewhere, since the added roof activity might cause additional roof leaks, leaks better tolerated at other buildings without assets at risk to the tune of over $1,000 per square foot.  Moreover, the library should not use any of it's funding for what are essentially non-mission expenses.  The city or university has people with budgets for investing in energy-savings; it's not the responsibility of the library.

In the city library you cite, the library just happens to be where they installed the solar panels.  I certainly hope the city paid for that separately, and it did not come out of the library budget.  Coming from the library budget would mean less books and resources.  People don't come to libraries for the solar panels.

If you are refering to a library that is essentially independent, like the NY Public Library, then the decision to put up solar panels would be up to them, since they raise the money to pay their electric bills.  It would all turn on the economics and life-cycle cost. 

Over-zealous "solar" projects can be an entire waste on a library.  Have you seen the main library at the University of Oklahoma at Norman?  It has solar domestic hot water panels installed from the 1980's. It was foolish.  You know why?  In my previous comment, I noted that the big energy users in libraries were HVAC and lighting.  Libraries don't need much hot water, and can do pretty well without any.  Certainly the solar hot water had no net value to the University, but it was a "solar" project.  Beware of things done to impress people instead of for merit in substance.

Marcos Martinez's picture

Mr. Lull, you bring great insight to this discussion. I appreciate your input. It has shed light in a whole new perspective for me. I never thought about it in that way.




William Lull (non-member)'s picture

Marcos, glad you are seeing this.  In the decade before he died, Paul Banks had me give an annual lecture to his preservation studies students.  It always had the same title, "Fans, Politics and Money."  Given 45 minutes, the most important thing I can tell any preservation studies student is that poltics and money are what make everything happen.  You can see that as cynical, but it is the life blood of commerce, academics, research... everything.  Of course if we only had economists, bankers and politicians we would stil be living in caves.  You still have to have hunters, gatherers, farmers, merchants and others with actions and goals to meet the needs of the people.

It is the responsibility of the professional to use the politics and money to do the right thing for thier profesional goals, be they a doctor, architect, librarian, teacher or engineer.  You have to keep your professional goals in sight, and always work toward them, but always know that you can achieve nothing if the politics and money are not properly managed.  If you ignore them, you might present some good papers at ALA, but you will find that you can waste your time and be ineffective in making changes for the good. 

Linda Zuckerman (non-member)'s picture

I'm not sure I agree with you that a library has no business putting in solar panels.  As solar advances, if solar panels are a good investment, then it is appropriate stewardship of the public's money to invest in them.  If they are not a good investment, then I agree that they should not be implemented. A public library's purpose is to provide information and entertainment to the community in the most cost effective way possible.  If minimizing utility costs through the use of solar furthers that mission, fine.

You might as well say that a library has no business in spending the publics money on anything other than books.  Yet libraries have evolved way beyond that.  Public institutions, like other types of institutions have to have the flexibility to make prudent decisions that can address the changing environment (including changes in politics and money).




Linda Zuckerman
Harford County Public Library

William Lull (non-member)'s picture

Linda, in your case, as a County Library, are the Library's energy costs paid out of the Library's annual budget? 

If NOT, then if you spent some of the Library's money to add solar panels (presumably photovolatics (PV)), then you would have less to spend on the things that are why people come to the Library.  That money would reduce the energy costs to whomever in the County pays the Library's energy bills.  It would simply be a net loss to the Library, and functionally inappropriate use of Library funds.  (It would be as if the Library, on their own and out of their annual budget, hired a private company to plow the parking lot in winter, instead of letting the County people do it.) 

If you DO pay your energy costs out of your annual budget, then you need to be sure that those annual funds are mixed and fungible, and not separately justified.  You run the risk of having the County cut the energy portion of your operating budget because your energy use went down, without giving the Library a chance to get the benefit of the energy cost savings.  Again, a risk of net loss to the Library and users.

In either case, the Library is not well equipped to make decisions about investing County monies on energy saving investments.  The County should have those assessments and decisions centralized and made by people who have the whole County budget in mind.  (How would you like it if the County energy management office started a little lending library of books on solar, without consulting with the Library?)  If they decide that the Library is a good place for a PV installation, then they would install it.  HOWEVER, there may be better County buildings that are a better location for the PV installation.  Those building may simply have a better base load profile to use the PV energy, they may be served by a different electric company with more favorable buy-back rates, or the County may have negotiated special utility rates for that other building, making the PV installation more attractive there.

By forcing solar, you run the risk of having the OU Library problem.  At least in that case, I am sure the University budget paid for the solar panels, possibly with a grant, and it did not come out of the OU Library budget.  If there were solar grants available to the County, then the County would presumably make the application, not the Library.  If the Library did make the application directly, you run the risk of the grant money being used in a less-than-best application for the County buildings, unless the Library was to take on the task of managing the energy use in all the County buildings.

Only when the Library controls it's whole financial picture and funding, like the NYPL, should the Library, per se, make such decisions.

In your case, the best way to be a responsible energy citizen is to find out who is making the energy management decisions at the County level, and encourage them to install PV or wind where appropriate.  That may or may not be your building.  Please keep in mind that for many locations wind turbines are more cost-effective than PV.  In simplifying responsible zero-carbon footprint to "solar," you may miss a bigger opportunity. 

Hope this helps.

William Lull (non-member)'s picture

Moving beyond the world of solar and green buzzwords, there are projects that are inherently good for public-occupied buildings, be they libraries or retail stores.  And are even better for libraries because they need to be conditioned 24 hours, and often hold things expected to have a much longer "shelf life."

The most common energy conservation measure found in humid-climate WalMarts, and well suited to libraries there and a bit father north, is outside air pre-treatment for dehumidification.  Retail stores, and more so libraries, need to avoid high humidity, and the consequences of contents damage and mold.  Yet, both spaces have high occupancy that demand large volumes of outside air.  This air is often at unfavorable conditions with too much moisture - moisture that has to be removed.  By pre-treating the outside air before it mixes with the return air, you can remove that moisture far more efficiently.

WalMart does this all the time to save money from the energy savings.

Libraries can take this a step further.  Collections deteriorate because of heat and moisture.  By reducing both, the library holdings will last longer.  By being more aggressive than WalMart, using desiccant dehumidification, we can not only protect the collections from damage, but actually extend their life (reduce their rate of chemical deterioration).  This is one of the most powerful concepts in efficiently conditioning a library with collection preservation goals.  We used it on the renovations at Widener at Harvard, the renaissance of the conditioning for the Harvard Depository, most of the state archives built in the past ten years, and in the two new outside air systems being installed this summer at Hornbake at the University of Maryland.

Yes, libraries can do things to save energy, things that are special to libraries and that make them and their collections better, but installing active solar systems is just not one of them.


Mary Carr's picture

Sorry to see that Mr. Lull is no fan of solar technology.  His comments seem rooted in the past....past technologies and the past in terms of energy prices and availability.

Renewables are here....and here to stay.  Guess solar has always been with us.  Just look at the great cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.  Advances are being made in renewables every day, whether it be solar, or wind, or geothermal or biomass.  All should be considered as part of the solution to the use of energy in buildings...which accounts for a significant ca. 38% of energy consumption nationwide.

There are many things to consider when looking at energy costs, and renewables to offset some of the energy use and carbon emissions:  Are you talking about a new building, or a renovation?  Is it a stand-alone facility or part of a larger plant?  Does your community, or your campus have an energy plan?  What part of the country are we speaking of?  What is the building's orientation?  What would be the ROI?  Can you sell excess back to the grid?  Can you partner with your local utility? Are the other renewables more feasible?  Are there incentives offered by the city, state or federal government that would offset the initial costs?

Well, that's only a few of the questions to ask?  But, they should be asked, and solar should not be dismissed out of hand, especially for some of the reasons put forth by Mr. Lull.

Last month I happened to be lucky enough to have a tour of APS's STAR Center in Arizona http://www.azsolarcenter.com/arizona/apsstar1.html).  APS is investing heavily in solar, and testing solar panels, both large and small ....because they can see that the bottom line will pencil out.  And, they are also looking at other forms of solar, including transparent solar cells for windows.

I say all of this with some knowledge about the subject, being a librarian, and a nationally certified sustainable building advisor, a green building professional with the National Home Builders Association and a LEED AP.

Without the particulars of any given situation.....there just isn't any answer, let alone one right answer....so it isn't necessary to eliminate solar as an option...or include it for that matter....until the entire project has been considered as an integrated whole. 

Mary M. Carr






Mary M. Carr, MLS, MS(HRM), cSBA, CGP, LEED AP BD+C, Executive Director, Library Services, Community Colleges of Spokane, Spokane Community College 1810 N. Greene St. MS2160 Spokane, WA 99217-5399  (Retired)

William Lull (non-member)'s picture

Sorry that you saw me as dismissing solar out of hand.  That is not at all the case.  My advice is caution from experience.  When I lead the calculations to evaluate the various energy and solar options for the design of SERI (now NREL), I had wanted to put in as much as we could, but the economics would not support any of the solar options.  In 25 years the prices of technology have come down, and energy prices are higher, and some of those options would be exercised today. 

But understand that we were defining the state of the art when we designed SERI.  DOE had presumably chosen the best and brightest to do that project.  That level of expertise would generally not be available to most libraries, and often not to any parent university or government.  This is why the most solid approach for a typical library is not to push the state of the art in energy design, but instead to see what the responsible commercial people are doing.  Do not at all take lightly precedents set by WalMart and other commercial users.  As Marcos' example shows, a WalMart in Dallas can be turned into a library.  The big retailers have some smart people working for them, and if you take an energy approach that they have found cost-effective, you may find something that works for a nearby library.  However, that does not mitigate the financial issues I cited, where the library could be losing money, and damaging their value to the community, if they cannot get the benefit of the energy cost savings.

I have recently made the general observation that there seem to be two schools of approach to thinking about "solar" and "green;" there are the Pre-Newtonian and Post-Newtonian schools.  The Pre-Newtonian school has a belief in solar, and I agree that it is certainly the only ultimate energy solution.  Moreover, I would prefer anything be done to accelerate true solar energy sources and avoid expansion of any carbon- or nuclear-based energy supply.  (I used to work for TVA.)  Solar is needed.  However, if you do solar for subjective reasons, you can end up with ineffective or mis-applied technologies, like the OU library.  This is the very reason that the solar push we started 30 years ago failed - unmet expectations.  The reliance on subjective rather than quantitative analysis leads to far too many people becoming disillusioned once the bills start coming in.

I am from the Post-Newtonian school, believing that whatever is going on, you cannot expect consistent effective results unless you have some sort of numerical analysis that explains what you see: what works, what does not work, and what should work.  The numbers, in this case the money, has to work.  If you push for solar without the economics to back you up, you can burn out that communication and interest channel.  People will stop listening.  To be effective, you have to offer changes that improve the situation in a quantifiable manner.  If not, you run the risk of being marginalized and ignored.

If a library were to argue for the installation for toplight daylighting, and can take the Powers That Be down the street and show them the local WalMart, it is hard to be ignored.  But if you instead point to things without good local precedent for your building type, the question must be posed: How is the library the source and genesis for something so unusual to local building practice?  You might even be right, but what resources do you have to make this argument, particularly to people in the larger organization, whose job it is to make these sorts of recommendations.  You may feel better about having pushed for something, but in my book, it does not count unless you are effective.

No, I am firmly convinced that the best thing the typical librarian, like Marcos, can do, is to seek out those responsible for energy management in their larger organization (university, county, state, country), and ask if they have looked for any special opportunities in the library.  Then cite precedents where other libraries have made improvements, solar or not, to be better energy citizens. 

My advice is to keep looking for library or corollary precedents you can cite to those making the money decisions.  But beware of the many projects cited and published that never disclose the basic information for a PV or electric energy savings project:

  • KW capacity (or reduction),

  • KWH generated (or saved) per year,

  • Capital cost (including hard and soft costs), and

  • Actual (not projected) energy savings per year. 

Absent these, you have no precedent, just an interesting idea that someone built.  By the way, these are also what you will need to know if you want make an argument for any solar or energy conservation measure.

In these several comments I have cited several energy conservation measures that have been installed in libraries and similar building types, each cost-justified, as well as one installed solar library project that was a bad idea. Can anyone cite ANY solar projects done on libraries where the results were effective and not problematic, and the net energy savings justified the capital costs?

Marcos Martinez's picture

"New battery could change world, one house at a time" article from the Daily Herald.

"In a modest building on the west side of Salt Lake City, a team of specialists in advanced materials and electrochemistry has produced what could be the single most important breakthrough for clean, alternative energy since Socrates first noted solar heating 2,400 years ago.

The prize is the culmination of 10 years of research and testing -- a new generation of deep-storage battery that's small enough, and safe enough, to sit in your basement and power your home. (See link below to continue reading article)



This battery can store quite a bit of energy harvested from solar and the wind.

I think this makes solar technology very feasible and ideal for any building now.




William Lull (non-member)'s picture

Ideal for Any Building Now?

  • What aisle can I find them on at Home Depot?
  • How much do they cost?  (What's the UPC code?)
  • What solar panels are you going to buy?  How many watts?
  • What is the insolation at your home?
  • What inverter are you going to buy?  How many amps peak, and average do you draw? 
  • How long do you need to run without any sun?  (What do the people in Washington state do?  Not much sun, and some places have very favorable Bonneville Power rates.)

Tell you what, I will wait until you install yours and get back to us about how it works out. ;)

Marcos, you are right in that an advance in battery storage is needed to allow the wider use of residential solar.  The other advance we need is the cost of PV arrays dropping to below $4/watt, though PV is cost effective now for some areas with the sun and high electric rates.  In citing this as a "solar technology" breakthrough you have again missed the wind option, which is a better (less $/KW) and a more reliable source in many locations.

The other major advancement we need to fix our energy picture is safe, efficient hydrogen storage for autos, or home.  Hydrogen gets us thermal energy and intense power that is hard for elecricity to provide.  (And anyone who thinks burning hydrogen is a carbon problem, please go play elsewhere.)  Unless the batteries get REALLY good, with high drain without a loss in capacity, hydrogen is still a more efficient storage medium - it's just not safe, yet.

Marcos Martinez's picture

Not literally now, Mr. Lull. ;)  We, humankind, are steps closer to having the option of going to home depot and buying these more efficient batteries.


If you don't mind, could you elaborate more on the use of hydrogen? I know this is a little off topic.


William Lull (non-member)'s picture

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.  You can make it any time you want by electrolysis - passing current through water, separating H2O into H2 (hydrogen) and O2 (oxygen).  All you need is electricity and water.

In the future, you will take a large parcel of land literally anywhere, and cover it with PV cells, and with a supply of water, will use the electricity to generate hydrogen and oxygen.  You vent the oxygen and store the hydrogen.  (The hydrogen storage equipment runs off the PV electricity too.)  You drive up your car, and refill your hydrogen reservoir, and dump your water into the "hydrogen filling station."  Swipe your credit card, and be on your way.  (There may very well be no attendant.)  Your car runs off hydrogen combustion, which some diesel engines can do now.  When you burn hydrogen you get heat and water, and that's all, period.  You condense and save the water to dump at your next fill-up.  Consumables in the process: next to nothing, and literally nothing as far as the hydrogen and energy are concerned.

You can do the same at your home, with PV panels on the roof, using the hydrogen to heat your house or cook your food, as well as run a generator at night (which you would reclaim heat from for heating in winter, and to run your absorption air conditioner in summer).  The reason to store hydrogen instead of electricity is that there is no loss in storage, and hopefully (once we get the technology breakthrough) will cause less waste, and be safe.

Hydrogen is the only seriously renewable energy source without complicating problems.  Absolutely no carbon/CO2 involved.  We just need: 1) more efficient PV panels, and 2) a safe hydrogen storage technology.  An alternative to the hydrogen storage is the super-efficient battery technology, which may be what they have found in Utah; you just have to be sure there is not any serious drawbacks.  We will see once General Electric or another big energy player tries to license (or copy) the technology to commercialize it.

If anyone wants to join some interesting and sometimes serious energy/sustainable/renewable discussions, check out the several groups over on LinkedIn.com.  It's entirely free, and a great way to keep in contact with colleagues, and make new contacts in your field of interest around the world.

Glee Willis's picture

I think an important step for librarians is to become acquainted, at the individual level, with small-scale solar projects.  For me, this has meant getting my electric scooter "off-the-grid" -- using solar panels purchased from Harbor Freight and Home Depot, the wheelchair batteries previously used in my electric scooter, and an inverter my husband had for another project.  We run a long extension cord from the inverter to the parking place in the garage where we plug in the scooter.  We also have solar-powered motion-detecting lights for security for our house, and a solar-powered attic fan.  These were all *very* affordable projects.  We don't all have to have massive solar arrays in order to gain first-hand, practical knowledge about solar installations that make us all better planners and consumers once we're ready for the big time in our libraries.

William Lull (non-member)'s picture

Glee, those are great ideas, and you have certainly gone off-grid with your scooters.  We should all do as much as we can at home, and it need not be solar.  (Keep in mind that making solar panels involves consumption and waste.) It is an old saying, but still true, conservation is a zero-impact technology.  Want to reduce your personal demand to build more coal or nuclear power plants?  Always run your electric clothes dryer at night, and try to do the same with your electric range.  As the new Energy Secretary said, when the opportunity presents itself, put on a white roof (though white residential shingles are almost non-existant).

At home we can readily make all sorts of compromises that we can literally live with, usually with little or no impact on productivity.  But in comercial and institutional applications there is far less tolerance for a lack of electric power.  You can't have people come to the library, only to hear that the past several cloudy days have caused you to shut down half your public computers - at least not without damaging the productivity of the library for its patrons.  We have to watch out for lost productivity, since if we seek to have the same carbon footprint as Kenya, recently suggested by Greenpeace, we may find that we drop to their productivity.  I don't see many companies or people wanting to move to Kenya, though it may be a nice place to visit or even retire.

If you want an energy-neutral country, look at Costa Rica.  Except for the oil they import to run their cars, trucks and airplanes, they are carbon neutral.  (They even have the only carbon-neutral airline, Nature Air.)  All their electricity comes from hydro, solar, wind and geothermal - zero carbon emissions.  They even have excess that they sell to nearby countries.  Once we get the electric/hydrogen car thing working, they are completely energy independant.  It's a good model to follow, and maybe working for that new Intel plant there, making chips, would not be a bad job.  ;)

Mary Carr's picture

I'm going to respond just one more time.....I really don't have time to continue the banter, as much fun as it is.

I have a bid on solar panels for my house.  It is located in Spokane....which, by the way, means Children of the Sun. I don't live on the rainy side. The house is located on the edge of a desert.  Lots of sunny days in the summer, spring and fall.....kinda cloudy, and snowy in the winter.  My house is a rancher with plenty of room on the roof, and it has a southern exposure.  And, for the record, Seattle has quite a bit of sun and solar panels have been proven to work well in Seattle. 

I didn't act on the bid last year because I was hopeful that the costs would come down....and they have.....and the incentives would get better, which they did.  So, I plan to go ahead, either this year or next.....while the 30%  tax credit is in effect. 

When the bid was done, the ROI was about 7 years.....and it is less now.  Besides the tax credit, WA does not charge tax on the sale of the panels, and there are several local incentives, along with the federal incentive, including payment for excess generation....per kw. I will make more for the excess energy produced than for the kws I purchase from the utility.  The utility would rather purhcase renewables, rather than build another dam.  The bid included Sanyo panels and an Outback inverter.  (I don't have the bid in front of me, so I don't recall the model numbers.)  And, since the bid is nearly a year old, I will have it redone because I'll be able to get way more panels for the same amount of money.....which will be one way that ROI will be improved.

We have hydro-electricity here in  Spokane and it is relatively cheap.......but, the electricity is only produced as long as the water continues to flow.....and the glaciers are almost gone.  Better than coal, but not completely in the category of renewable...not if you have been to the Canadian Rockies or Glacier Park lately.






Mary M. Carr, MLS, MS(HRM), cSBA, CGP, LEED AP BD+C, Executive Director, Library Services, Community Colleges of Spokane, Spokane Community College 1810 N. Greene St. MS2160 Spokane, WA 99217-5399  (Retired)