Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, director of arts and food justice at the Festival Center, likes to share a story about cooking in the Adams Morgan nonprofit’s new all-electric, energy-efficient kitchen. One day, not long after the retrofitted Festival Center building opened in mid-June, Melendez Rivera put a pot of water on the shiny induction stovetop and wandered to the sink to wash another dish.
“So all the sudden I hear like ‘whoosh!’” she said, speaking at an Aug. 10 press conference celebrating the building’s newly-online solar panels. “It took five minutes to boil this significantly large pot of water.”
The high-tech kitchen opened after three years of renovations that transformed the interior of the Festival Center’s large, church-like brick building. The many changes included major energy efficiency measures combined with over 100 solar panels. In a city where over 70% of greenhouse emissions come from buildings, the faith-based nonprofit is aiming for carbon neutrality.
“In order to welcome people into the space, we’ve learned to already be doing the good neighborly work of not emitting more carbon emissions,” said Executive Director Bill Mefford in an interview. “We thought, ‘Well, let’s be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.’”
The upgrades also made business sense for the nonprofit. The Festival Center can expect to save about $8,500 per year on energy costs, according to Crystal McDonald, the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility’s director of account management and workforce development.
The new solar system will produce roughly 56,800 kilowatt-hours of energy annually — about the equivalent of five American households a year, McDonald said.
Old Building, New Opportunities
The Festival Center first opened in 1989 as a ministry from the nondenominational D.C.-based Church of the Saviour. The organization hosts its own justice-centered programming — some religious and some secular — while offering low-rent office spaces for nonprofits.
The renovation cost over $5 million in total, according to construction company Usource CEO Shirley Boubert-Rumble. It included the addition of a whole new floor and a complete redesign of the interior. Mefford said the building clearly needed some updates, and the organization decided to go all in.
“It was an aging building — there was a lot of deterioration in terms of the systems, particularly the HVAC system,” he said. “It was extraordinarily expensive to run.”
In fact, Mefford said, the electric bills had cost upwards of $50,000 annually. The Festival Center decided to place energy efficiency and on-site energy generation at the center of its renovation plans.
With the help of construction management and real estate company Usource, the organization installed highly energy-efficient lighting, HVAC systems and kitchen appliances while redoing the building. Engineers from the Festival Center, Usource, DCSEU and installer New Columbia Solar put their heads together to design a system of 88 rooftop panels and 19 panels that create an extra awning beyond the roof’s edge.
Mefford thinks the $8,500 estimate for annual savings might actually be a lowball, though he said it’s still far too early to tell. In the first two months after the energy efficient systems began running, the solar panels had not yet come online—but he still saw the Center’s energy bills drop between $400 and $500.
“I think we could be looking at possibly more savings than what they even imagined,” Mefford said. “But we’re all waiting to hear back exactly what those numbers will be.”
A Promising Example for Commercial Solar
Mefford is not the only one pinning high expectations on the project. Corporate and government leaders who spoke at the press conference described it as an example for the commercial real estate community.
Nick Burger, deputy director of the Department of Energy and Environment, said that the project illustrated that climate efforts can be feasible even for organizations working on relatively tight budgets. According to public tax documents, the Festival Center brought in just over $1.1 million in revenue in 2021.
“A lot of times when we talk to building owners about all these steps that we’re discussing today, the electrification and solar, they get nervous,” Burger said at the press conference. “[They’ll say,] ‘Induction stoves won’t work for us. We don’t have room to put solar.’ So demonstration projects like this show that you actually can do it.”
The Festival Center is ahead of the curve, and under D.C. law, other buildings will soon need to catch up. Starting in just three years, all new buildings will need to be fully electric. The city’s Building Energy Performance Standards, or BEPS, require buildings over 50,000 square feet to meet energy efficiency targets by the end of 2026.
The Festival Center, at 19,000 square feet, will already exceed those standards by the time BEPS applies to buildings of its size in 2033.
Carrots as Well as Sticks — But Is It Enough?
The Festival Center also made use of District and federal government-funded incentives and financing opportunities aimed at boosting green development practices around the city. The project received $300,000 in grant money from the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and $100,000 from a FEMA grant, according to Boubert-Rumble.
In addition to more than $2 million in conventional loans, the project also received $2.2 million in loans from the D.C. Green Bank’s PACE program, Boubert-Rumble said. PACE helps finance energy performance upgrades and new high-efficiency buildings by allowing property owners to pay the loans back through property assessments over the course of 15 to 20 years.
Usource estimates that the system will pay for itself in cost savings within 10 to 15 years.
The DCSEU also chipped over $10,000 for the project, which came from incentives and rebates the organization offers based on the plans’ energy savings. McDonald, the DCSEU’s account management and workforce development director, said that incentives can sometimes nudge property owners to consider equipment that would otherwise seem out of the question. But they may not always be sufficient to make the project worth it without additional financing help.
“Incentives are designed to be only a portion of the cost,” she said. “Oftentimes, customers will have a challenge coming up with a total financial package.”
Commercial real estate in the District has struggled to recover in the work-from-home world that began with the COVID-19 pandemic. Business groups like the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington have argued that, despite the financial resources on offer, requirements like BEPS pose unreasonable financial hardships.
Mefford pushes back on that idea.
“We were faced with the same pandemic that everybody else was,” he said. “And we had the same kind of building — wide open spaces and big offices and all. And we knew that coming out of it, we were going to have to do things differently. … So part of that was a reconfiguration of the building, and part of it was we really needed to do energy savings.”
Not Just Cost Savings, and Not Just Emissions
The Festival Center’s focus on energy efficiency is impossible to miss inside the brand-new kitchen. One can almost sense just from looking at the futuristic stainless steel appliances that the ovens heat up in five minutes and the fans turn on automatically if the room gets too hot.
On a tour around the building, one person asked Melendez Rivera if she noticed the air quality inside the room was any better than in a standard kitchen with gas appliances.
“Oh, trust me — you can tell the difference,” she replied.
Fossil fuel appliances contribute to air pollution indoors and outside in our neighborhoods, a 2021 report from the renewable energy NGO Rocky Mountain Institute found. A growing body of research suggests that all-electric buildings like the Festival Center are healthier for the people in and around them — not to mention, healthier for the warming planet.
“This is a very visible building in our community, and because it’s a high pedestrian area, people are familiar with it. People will be coming in and out of this space. They get to see what energy efficiency looks like,” McDonald said.
For Melendez Rivera, energy efficiency feels like a kitchen that doesn’t get hot every time she or others on her team turn on the oven. It looks like water that boils in just a few short minutes. But it goes beyond that, too.
The Festival Center rents out the all-new industrial kitchen on a sliding scale: Prices range from about $75-125, a rate Melendez Rivera says is about half the price of comparable commercial operations. Saving on energy bills allows the Festival Center to rent out its new high-tech kitchen at lower prices, offering access to new entrepreneurs alongside long-time street vendors operating on thin profit margins.
“[This has] made it possible for us to help others,” she said.