Sunny future for ecoroofs

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Ecoroof with solar, 79 SE Taylor St. in Portland

Ecoroof with solar, 79 SE Taylor St. in Portland

It may be the largest combined solar and ecoroof installation on the West Coast, but it's also an example of Portland's growing — and exportable — expertise.

Columbia Green Technologies Inc. and Solterra Systems, the companies behind the 5,600 square-foot ecoroof installation that was completed this month on a historic building in Portland's Eastside Industrial District, haven't been able to turn up a bigger combined solar-ecoroof project.

"We believe it to be one of the largest combo solutions in the Northwest," said Vanessa Keitges, Columbia Green's president, playing it safe.

The rooftop configuration designed by Columbia Green and installed by Solterra Systems — both companies have offices in the building at 79 SE Taylor St. — features 210 solar modules made by Sanyo and 12 different plant varieties.

Last week, a group of roof specialists from Australia and New Zealand toured the installation and met with Columbia Green about licensing their ecoroof technology for use on the other side of the globe. The technology includes growing trays manufactured in Camas, Wash., different kinds of water-capturing and filtering materials, and a proprietary recipe for the medium in which plants grow.

"We don’t have time to grow into these places ourselves," Keitges said. "The market is happening so quickly for us."

After three years of a direct sales model, Columbia Green has transitioned into a partnership mode, licensing its ecoroof technology to partners in places such as Belgium and Canada — in addition to pending deals with New Zealand and Australia.

Under this model, Keitges expects the company to ramp up to about $20 million in sales in five years. Keitges and a group of private investors bought the business for $1.9 million three years ago. The company has three employees.

Solterra , which has offices in Portland and Seattle is expanding its reach up and down the west coast and has 10 employees.

Brian Heather, the company’s president, said that Solterra’s $800,000 in 2009 sales have already been eclipsed by the $1.5 million sold so far this year.

"What’s starting to emerge is an inventory of companies getting more work," said Tom Liptan, who manages the ecoroof program for the City of Portland.

The city offers several incentives for ecoroof development, including up to $5 per square foot per installation. Ecoroofs are becoming a more common choice for new construction because of their stormwater management properties.

Portland is also leading academic research on how solar energy and greener rooftops can work together.

A group of researchers at Portland State University received a National Science Foundation grant last year to study how installing solar panels over trays of ecoroof plantings can actually make the green roof thrive while making the solar panels operate more efficiently. The researchers installed monitors and sensors on the Taylor Street building to gather data for their work.

"The opportunity was too good to pass up," said David Sailor, a professor for PSU’s Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, who is involved in the research. "It gives us the opportunity to study how the systems perform in general and study the roof’s interaction with the urban environment."

Michael Kauth, who owns the century-old building once used by International Harvester, paid $500,000 to install the new roof and its green and solar features. He expects to get about 40 percent of that money back in the form of incentives.

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