Call centre embraces solar option

MISSISSAUGA, ONTARIO - LoyaltyOne had a dilemma when planning its new Mississauga call centre.

The company had committed $2-million to install an 800-panel solar power system, Canada's largest. But how could the company possibly show it off as an environmental showpiece when the panels would be located on the roof where most people will never see them?

Interior designers suggested incorporating the system's inverter panel - where the direct current (DC) generated by solar panels is converted into alternating current (AC) - as a design feature on one of the walls in the staff lounge.

Next to the pinball machines, pool table and team-building video games, employees will be able to see how sunshine is converted into electricity.

"When we started this process, we wanted to have an environmental landmark, to create something that our employees could learn from," explains Debbie Baxter, vice-president corporate sustainability and facilities for LoyaltyOne, the Toronto company that manages the Air Miles loyalty card program.

This month, 500 call-centre staff will move into 50,000 square feet of leased space in the new building, which was built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) core and shell silver standards, while the interior will qualify for LEED gold, Ms. Baxter says.

The building is managed by Bentall LP, and owned by British Columbia Investment Management Corp., that province's public-sector pension fund manager.

By the end of this year, 40 per cent of LoyaltyOne staff will be working in green office space, bringing the company a step closer to its mandate of leasing space only in buildings that are either LEED silver-certified or that meet similar environmental standards, Ms. Baxter says. Construction recently began on LoyaltyOne's new 8,500-square-foot Calgary office, which is designed to LEED silver, she says.

The Mississauga call centre features 800 photovoltaic panels as part of a solar power system capable of generating 165 kilowatts, making it the largest in Canada followed by the Horse Palace building on Toronto's Exhibition Place grounds at 100 kilowatts.

The renewable energy generated at the building will be fed into the provincial power grid, Ms. Baxter explains, and the building will draw from the grid. LoyaltyOne is in the process of applying to the feed-in tariff program under the Ontario government's Green Energy Act. Essentially the company would enter a 20-year agreement to sell its power to the Ontario Power Authority for just over 80 cents a kilowatt hour, Ms. Baxter says.

When tax incentives are included, it will likely take about 10 years for LoyaltyOne to break even on the solar power system investment, she says.

Aside from the main building rooftop panels, there is a solar installation in the outside parking area that generates electricity and heats water for low-flow showers, energy-efficient dishwashers and regular tap usage, says Fidel Reijerse, president of Resco Energy Inc., which designed and built the system and acted as general contractor for the solar project.

Because the project was so ambitious, the work was portioned out to several subcontractors. This included electrical, structural steel, and solar-specific installation companies, Mr. Reijerse says.

"No single provider is really prepared for a project of this size," Ms. Baxter adds. "From an installation standpoint, the majority of work has been happening in smaller projects and residential solar installations. When we tendered the project... we decided to spread the work over different trades and encourage them to grow a little bit because of the [under-developed] state of our solar implementation industry."

LoyaltyOne is spending $10-million to outfit the interior of the building, which features a massive open-concept ground floor with groupings of low-walled cubicles for call-centre workers. Two staff gathering areas are defined by unique curtains made from thousands of interconnected, wallet-sized Air Miles loyalty cards. "It serves to segregate the space so that people can use it as a meeting area," Ms. Baxter explains.

A design feature that Ms. Baxter describes as a "21st century forest," is the grouping of vertical support columns. Painted natural shades of blue, green and orange, the columns help to define the wide-open spaces and, functionally, hide cables and wires.

Additional environmental initiatives include a waste management program, the use of recycled content and low-emission materials in construction and interior finishings such as carpets, and the assignment of preferential parking spaces to staff who drive fuel efficient, low-emission vehicles. About 15 per cent of call-centre staff will participate in a work-from-home program.

While the building's large perimeter windows allow lots of natural daylight, solar tube skylights installed throughout the space augment energy-efficient light fixtures. The interiors of these vertical tubes feature a series of surfaces that refract and reflect solar light into the workspace.

Mr. Reijerse says that because large tenants like LoyaltyOne have high environmental expectations for their leased spaces, they are helping to establish the viability of large rooftop solar power systems.

"Tenants have been the leaders up until this point - they've really made demands on their landlords. But I think that's starting to change as more landlords recognize that in order to be competitive and attract top-tier clients they need to look at these types of amenity components," says Mr. Reijerse, whose company has created on-site energy generation systems for Campbell Soup's Toronto plant and the Mountain Equipment Co-op store in Burlington, Ont.

Stuart Wanlin, executive vice-president of Bentall LP in Toronto, says landlords, particularly in the institutional sector, have always tried to keep operating costs down by improving building efficiencies. Still, he expects Ontario's feed-in tariff program to be the catalyst for more solar roof projects.

"I know we have a couple of pilot projects for other clients and we're trying to get more solar installations on top of rooftops that our clients own," Mr. Wanlin says.

Another company, Pizza Pizza Ltd., has moved its head office to a 40-year-old Toronto building that it purchased, renovated and fitted with wind turbines and solar panels.

Altogether, 24 kilowatts will be generated and all of the energy will be used to help power the pizza chain's corporate office, call centre and warehouse, construction manager Stephen Poole says. The initiative will reduce the electrical load for the 138,000-square-foot building in the Etobicoke neighbourhood by 10 to 15 per cent.

The building was renovated to increase the amount of natural light in the office area. Additional environmental initiatives include the installation of a high-efficiency snow- and ice-melting system at the front entrance that reduces the need for salting in the winter.

Because Pizza Pizza has a mandate to reduce waste and use recycled materials in its retail operations, it was a "natural step for us to show everyone that we are trying to do our best for the environment," by renovating an existing building and powering it with renewable energy, says Pat Finelli, chief marketing officer for Pizza Pizza.



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