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Experts say 'green' building in Florida will profit with new emphasis on low-cost energy

Article as it appeared in The St. Petersburg Times
June 13, 2009
By Brian Spegele | Times Staff Writer

Architect Steve Klar[Photo credit: Jim Damaske | Times]

CLEARWATER — For more than 15 years, Steve Klar has earned a living by helping others go green. It's been an uphill battle, though, as Klar has rejected business deals that don't live up to his environmentalist ideals and challenged the status quo on energy use long before doing so was trendy. But the architect — perhaps like many Florida developers these days — has been losing sleep. "How can I make money in this economy?" he wonders.

With financing often tough to secure and unemployment sitting at its highest point in 30 years, area home and commercial construction has vanished. But in the downturn and the resulting political calls to transform the country's economy, green builders and contractors sense opportunity.

Area green builders and contractors say double-digit growth in recent years is, among other factors, a result of climbing energy prices, government incentives and the falling price of green technology.
"Who knows what we'll pay for energy in five years?" Klar said. "It won't go down, but it could go through the roof."

Barack Obama's election last year brought renewed hope, Klar and others in the industry say. With an economy in flux, the new president brought renewable energy into the spotlight. With that spotlight came a chance to succeed.

"Pretty soon, we'll see more companies constructing solar panels, and workers building wind turbines, and car companies manufacturing fuel-efficient cars," Obama said in April, describing renewable energy as one of four building blocks for an evolving U.S. economy. "Investors will put some money into a new energy technology, and small business will open to start selling it."

That message was directed at people like Klar, who runs a small architectural firm with his wife in Clearwater. He has preached energy-saving efforts since he was a student at the University of Minnesota. There, he said, people were more open to embracing new ideas and technology. "In Minnesota, the answer is 'why not?" he said. "Here the answer is 'why?'

Among their projects, Klar's team recently finished work on a building in Pinellas Park. That building, home to Surgical Pathology Laboratories, includes a host of energy-saving features, including receiving 30 percent of its power from the sun.

In another project, Klar recently designed a building for Pinellas County's Homeless Emergency Project, which provides temporary and transitional housing for individuals and families in Clearwater. The building, currently under construction on N Betty Lane, will be partially powered by the sun. "We're just looking to do more with less," said Libby Stone, the nonprofit's vice president. The organization expects to save 30 percent in utility bills each month with the new building. In turn, money saved will further help the homeless. "It's intelligent growth," Stone said.

The $2.7 million building project has already received $800,000 in government grants, Stone said, and could land an extra $730,000 from Obama's economic stimulus package. Federal grants and tax rebates for renewable energy have been central to Obama's economic stimulus plan. Environmentalists cheered when his plan allocated $30 billion in energy-related initiatives. If approved, a proposed cap-and-trade plan could be further reason for businesses to embrace Klar's environmentalism. Obama's message is echoed by energy advocates who say — despite recent government initiatives — Florida lags in solar production. "They don't call it the Sunshine State for nothing," said Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, an advocacy group that promotes solar energy.

Despite the state's sunny climate, Florida does not rank among the top 10 states in terms of cumulative solar energy capacity, according to data provided by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.
But the price of solar equipment is dropping, Browning said. During the high-cost energy peak last summer, the demand for solar panels jumped. Now, a glut of panels, is driving the market price down. Some report selling equipment at half the price compared with recent years.

Even so, Solar Direct, a Bradenton solar equipment outfitter, grew by 50 percent during the past four years. "In terms of Florida, it's a whole new industry," said Dale Gulden, the company's CEO. Greater resource conservation must play a part in Florida's economic recovery, he said. For consumers looking to economize, green construction is a path to cheaper utility bills, builders say.

Josh Bomstein, vice president at Clearwater's Creative Contractors firm, said economics is consumers' greatest impetus. Other factors, like reversing global warming, play a role in the minds of consumers. But, he added, a low price tag is the strongest sales pitch. Even as the development bubble burst in 2008, Creative Contractors' green business grew by 40 percent. Calls for green building are more than a fad, Bomstein said. The triggers for change are too strong.
"I don't see this going away."

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