Steven Ribeiro’s Independence Station project in Oregon will run on vegetable oil and solar power — and save a bundle. Ribeiro, principal of Aldeia Development LLC, is building a $15 million, 57,000 sq. ft. mixed-use project in downtown Independence, Ore. It will rely on vegetable oil to power a diesel engine to generate the building’s electrical supply. Ribeiro is pursuing LEED certification for the project, using the alternative technologies, and hopes to earn a record number of points for the downtown development. Ribeiro is following in his father’s footsteps. His father, Eugene Ribeiro, built innovative projects in the 1960s, and is a partner in the Independence Station project.

NREI: How much experience have you had in commercial real estate?
Ribeiro: I’ve been involved in real estate most of my life, mostly flipping homes, fixing them up, selling them, that type of thing — rental properties, multifamily units. This would be it, as far as an actual development goes, the first one that I’ve pretty much done on my own, although I’ve joint -ventured quite a few in the past. My father and I have done some projects in the past as well, but this is our first green one.

NREI: Who will occupy the building when it’s finished?
Ribeiro: It’s a mixed-use building; it has residential units, shops and offices. The 15 apartments can be sold or leased. The primary intention is to sell, although we’d like to keep some units in the family. The condos will be priced from $250,000 to $650,000.

NREI: What stage of construction is the project?
Ribeiro: It’s about 35% complete. We expect to finish in 2009.

NREI: It’s powered by vegetable oil and the sun?
Ribeiro: Right. Here in the Willamette valley in Oregon, we have a pretty consistent cloud cover and cool weather in the wintertime, and then it’s pretty nice and sunny in the summertime. So we’ve got 130 kilowatts of solar to power the building in the summertime, and when the cloud cover comes in and solar production goes down, we need to replace that electricity, so we’re running biodiesel-powered generators to produce that power in winter. So we pick up the waste heat from those generators and store it in a thermal mass underneath the building, and we circulate that hot water that we’ve collected and stored to heat the building as well. So we get a dual benefit from the vegetable oil.

NREI: How does the process work?
Ribeiro: Basically the building will be powered with 100% renewable energy. The oil will be fuel for the diesel engine that runs the generator. We’re looking at recycled oil that would be donated by local restaurants.

NREI: Does it matter what kind of oil it is?
Ribeiro: No. It has to be filtered, of course. The other, second phase of the project is that we’re looking for a local farmer who will plant 200 acres of sunflowers for us. Basically, that’ll produce enough sunflower oil to run the building in wintertime. So we’ll buy that oil from the farmer, and he’ll send it to a local crushing plant that’s just been formed in a coop about four miles from us. What’s left over after the sunflowers are crushed and the oil comes out is a real good, high protein cattle feed that can be sold to the local dairy. You’ve got two crops coming off the same land.

NREI: Did the diesel engine have to be converted or adapted to accept this oil?
Ribeiro: Actually, diesel engines had to be adapted to run on petroleum fuel. The diesel engine was invented before oil was discovered, for the most part, so peanut oil was the very first diesel fuel, back in the early 1900s. We’re just doing the same thing, so there’s nothing to convert. The diesel engine is actually better suited to run on vegetable oil than on petroleum fuel. It’s much cleaner, it smells better, and we’ve got several sources of it locally.

NREI: How will the energy costs of this building compare with traditional costs?
Ribeiro: Our energy costs have been modeled by our engineer at 92% less than a standard building. The baseline consumption is $49,873. That means a brown building, a conventional building of the same size, type and use as what we’re building, would consume that much energy. But because we’re doing it the way we are, it’s only going to cost us $4,000.

NREI: Will tenants be able to tell that this is an unconventional energy source?
Ribeiro: We have a central power plant that sends electricity to the building just like any building that uses electricity. All the plugs will be regular and normal and the user won’t have any idea.