SF’s $201.6M green tower falls short of some expectations

While initially touted by The City as the greenest office building in North America, new analysis shows some of the celebrated features of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s $200 million headquarters have not lived up to expectations.

The most glaring setback of the building that opened in 2012 is the energy-producing wind turbines affixed to the front facade of 525 Golden Gate Ave. have since been decommissioned and the company who installed them shortly afterward filed for bankruptcy.

Additionally, during the first year of operation there were no power meters installed to gauge what electricity was produced, according to an agency memo from Kathryn How, assistant general manager of infrastructure for the SFPUC, earlier this month.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is set to discuss the memo at its meeting Tuesday after some commissioners previously raised questions about the building during an October meeting.

“Let me be very clear. These were experiments. We went further than most people would go because we had the opportunity to do that,” said SFPUC commissioner Anson Moran during that meeting.

“The fact that [the building] didn’t perform according to our expectations, I don’t see that as a ding against anybody. The only ding against us would be if we didn’t tell people what we learned. That’s why I am so anxious to get those lessons out.”

He added in reference to the ratepayers, “We owe it to the people who paid for these projects to do a more complete report.”

The memo details other complications that arose from trying to advance the green building movement. Some adjustments were needed to address noxious fumes from treating onsite all the building’s wastewater for other uses like irrigation.

And while the photovoltaic system has met energy needs as planned, the solar inverter room became too hot due to poor ventilation, and a cooling system had to be installed.

In another unexpected twist, the company that installed the inverter room has gone bankrupt, making replacement parts unattainable, the memo said.

Mayor Ed Lee celebrated in June 2012 the grand opening in a statement, dubbing the 13-story building that holds some 900 government employees, “North America’s Greenest Urban Office Building.”

The building, Lee had said, “represents forward-thinking and San Francisco ingenuity at its best.”

Some achievements of the sustainable features include saving 2.3 million gallons of potable water during the past three years from recycled wastewater treatment onsite.

But Moran also expressed concerns that the nonpotable water conservation system, such as the rain harvesting system and the recycled wastewater treatment, was not being used as initially envisioned to meet water demands in other areas like the nearby City Hall and Civic Center Plaza.

San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s general manager Harlan Kelly addressed some of those concerns during the October meeting.

“When we talked about [the building] we talked about being on the leading edge and sometimes the bleeding edge,” Kelly said. “I would say the wind turbines is more on the bleeding edge.”

The memo discourages wind as an energy source.

“Urban wind really isn’t a viable energy generation source in [San Francisco], especially on mid-rise downtown buildings,” the memo listed as a “lesson learned.” “This is primarily due to lack of wind resource and difficulty and expense of a building design that will properly accommodate the wind turbines.”

Kelly said that using the building’s non-
potable water system to meet the needs of other public assets in the area may not be worth the cost.

“This is all new information that helps inform us when we start talking about other projects,” he added. “We had to try it out first.”

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