The Bren School of Environmental Science & Management’s solar panels – which were recalled two years ago by the manufacturer – have yet to be replaced, raising questions over the building’s green reputation.
At its inception, the Bren School building was celebrated as the country’s greenest lab and set a new precedent for sustainable architecture. Installation of a 42 kW solar photovoltaic roof on Bren was completed in 2003, helping the structure win Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum certification, the highest standard of the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable building design.
Due to the manufacturer’s recall of the solar panels, however, the building is currently operating on electricity from Southern California Edison, according to a UCSB annual energy report. Thus, the environmentally certified building presently runs on the same form of energy as the rest of campus and the average 50-year-old Isla Vista house.
According to Jeff Kirby, Bren Engineering Facility Manager, some of the roof’s solar panels began to deteriorate a few years after installation.
“Some panels went bad, and of the 240 panels, seven were replaced,” Kirby said. “These are intricate, high-level devices. It’s usual for a number to go bad.”
However, Kirby said the recall of these panels was not due to ordinary wear and tear.
“The sixth year of installation we received a letter from the distributor, SunPower, that the manufacturer SANYO was recalling the panels because connecting wires were slightly too small and overheated,” Kirby said. “One panel was completely charred on the backside. We immediately disconnected all panels.”
Steven Schwartz, a California architectural attorney, said that without the “green” solar panels, the Bren building’s LEED distinction now holds no weight.
“[The building’s] certification [is] without any meaning – period,” Schwartz said.
John Zinner, a member of the USGBC Los Angeles chapter, however, said it is unlikely that LEED will rescind Bren’s certification.
“[Revoking titles is] not the purpose of the U.S. Green Building Council,” Zinner said. “To quote a quote, ‘There are no LEED police.'”
Meanwhile, Schwartz said he is puzzled by the university’s apparent inaction in acquiring replacement solar panels.
“UCSB is not adverse to pressing lawsuits,” he said.
Kirby said the extensive delay is a result of bad timing.
“At the same time Sanyo recalled the panels, there was an oil crisis and demand for solar panels increased around the world,” Kirby said. “No one has been dragging their feet.”
And almost two years after the panels’ initial recall, Kirby said he awaits the arrival of the promised new devices this fall.
“[SunPower] added us to the waiting list,” Kirby said. “The earliest to expect the new panels is this fall.”