Although it may not be "new" news, the ProLogis Rooftop Photovoltaic Test Site in Denver still represents one of the most progressive technology projects in the commercial real estate industry.

ProLogis, one of the largest industrial real estate companies in the world and thus one of the largest owners of flat roofs (think big industrial buildings), long ago began thinking about how to maximize revenue by using its rooftops. One of the first major projects was the Kaiser Distribution Park in Fontana, California, where ProLogis leased 607,000 sq. ft. of roof space to Southern California Edison for the purpose of building a large, utility grade solar array.

Over the years, ProLogis has continued to develop its solar program and take full advantage of the green revolution. In order to maximize shareholder value and minimize risk, ProLogis simply leases the rooftops to utilities and third party investors who cover the material and installation costs. For ProLogis, this is an additional revenue stream that will only become more stable as renewable energy becomes increasingly more important.

To fully understand the implications of converting millions of square feet of rooftops into solar fields, ProLogis determined they needed to be more knowledgeable in the technology and have a better understanding of things like panel efficiencies, system weights, power densities, mounting options and solar array issues. So they rolled up their sleeves and became "experts" in the field. As you can imagine, this was quite a departure from the normal business activities of an industrial real estate company.

Rooftop tests examine technology

ProLogis executives quickly concluded that a solar “test site” would be in order. What better way to understand the inner workings of this technology than to install it on a ProLogis warehouse near their corporate HQ and study all aspects of the technology.

Today, the solar test site is managed under the guidance of Matt Singleton, vice president, renewable energy. The project includes side-by-side comparisons of several module technologies, including monocrystalline, glass-on-glass thin film and membrane-applied thin film modules.

Through its early proof-of-concept projects in Europe and California, this solar test site, and their ever increasing portfolio of hosted rooftop solar installations, ProLogis has become an active player in the solar development space. With this increased expertise, they have taken a deeper role in project development and construction management, thus mitigating risk and acting in the best interest of their share holders.

For years, we have been talking about the concept of an R&D or prototype lab for technology in the commercial, corporate or institutional real estate market. There are many instances where owners with multiple buildings who are considering deploying new technology should first test the concept before deploying it to their entire portfolio. Think of a bank branch wanting to test a new building automation platform, an office owner wanting to better understand in-building wireless, or a retailer trying to gain more experience in digital signage.

The concept of prototypes has been around forever. Almost every other industry tests ideas before rolling them out to the masses. From automobiles to cell phones, prototype environments or “labs” are where ideas are first flushed out. So why is the concept so foreign to our industry? An answer is elusive; I've heard everything from "never really thought if it," to "too expensive" or "it's not our core business."

The success of the ProLogis solar test site makes it very apparent that the idea of a testing ground to prove new technologies in an organization that owns or manages a significant number of commercial assets makes all the sense in the world. A place where the technology and its functionality, along with organizational and financial issues, can all be investigated prior to rollout seems a very prudent practice and one our industry should be engaged in as well.

We hope ProLogis and their solar test site will become an example of what an R&D facility should look like. We believe that he who fails the most and the fastest will get to the finish line first. Prototyping will allow for this trial and error activity without the full ramifications of a companywide deployment.