US: Clean-Energy Mega-Mall

Could a mall mogul's dream project give a big boost to renewables?
Publisher Name: 
Grist

As the Senate deliberates over the Bush-backed energy bill and enviros send out another round of distress signals over America's obdurate fossil-fuel dependency,
who would believe that the next big thing in renewable energy is being
driven by a tenacious commercial developer with strong GOP affiliations
and 25 mega-malls under his belt?


Picture a gargantuan shopping complex in upstate New York -- a
so-called "retail city" big enough to make Mall of America look like a
five-and-dime -- with thousands of shops plus restaurants, theaters,
hotels, a high-tech research park for commercial R&D, and a
sprawling, climate-controlled biosphere for recreation. Yet another
environmental abomination, you say?


Not so fast.


Shopping-mall titan Robert Congel,
one of the world's biggest commercial real-estate developers, is about
to begin building a multi-billion-dollar, 800-acre shopping and
entertainment complex with all of the above-mentioned amenities, but
without -- and here comes the part that strains belief -- so much as a
barrel of oil or a kilowatt of fossil-fuel-generated power. That's
right, folks, a 100 percent clean-energy mega-mall. He vows that it
will be the closest thing to an "Apollo Project" for renewable energy
that America has ever seen -- one that grows the economy, strengthens
national security by encouraging energy independence, and protects the
environment.


Congel's bulldozers -- fully powered by pure biodiesel,
along with the rest of his construction equipment -- are scheduled to
begin leveling the development site in early June on a massive
brownfield in Syracuse, N.Y., formerly dubbed "Oil City" for the giant
tanks of crude it once housed. On it he plans to erect the
optimistically named "DestiNY USA," a retail complex powered entirely by wind turbines, solar panels, fuel cells, and biofuels.


Despite skepticism from a number of Syracuse locals,
commercial-development analysts, and renewable-energy experts that the
immense and unprecedented scheme can be pulled off, Congel doesn't
hesitate to make grandiose predictions for DestiNY, claiming it will
attract tourists from around the world and become a paradigm-shifting
catalyst for the nation's renewable-energy markets. Muckraker heard
these forecasts firsthand during a lavish investor symposium in
February at the developer's 6,000-acre retreat an hour north of
Syracuse where, in the interest of full disclosure, room and board were
provided for a night.

Congel so relishes the symbolism of his project that he is working with
a bipartisan cohort of politicians to get a provision into the energy
bill that would call on the president to select and recognize
"renewable and sustainable mega-projects that can move America toward
energy independence," as Rich Pietrafesa,
a DestiNY managing director and policy adviser to Congel, explained it.
The measure does not entail any subsidies or tax breaks for the
venture; it's purely symbolic. "If the White House says, 'This kind of
project is fundamental to the future and safety of America,' it will go
a long way to accelerate the commercial acceptance of
[renewable-energy] technologies," Pietrafesa said.


That's not to say that the complex isn't getting any tax breaks. On the
contrary, the DestiNY team has managed to secure a staggering raft of
tax benefits at every level -- city, county, state, and federal -- with
the help of New York politicians on both sides of the party line,
including Sens. Hillary Clinton (D) and Charles Schumer (D) and Gov. George Pataki (R). On the federal plane, Clinton and Schumer went to bat last year to add $231 million to the corporate tax bill
to finance $2 billion in "green bonds" for eco-friendly shopping
developments. DestiNY is expected to reap a significant portion of
these funds due to its unparalleled size.


That is, of course, if the developers can meet the bond requirements, which will be no small task, according to Ashok Gupta, the senior energy economist at Natural Resources Defense Council.
"The green guidelines for these bonds are as stringent as I've seen --
hardly a giveaway from a policy standpoint," he told Muckraker. Gupta
said he was impressed by the DestiNY team's enthusiasm for the strict
guidelines, but wasn't sure the mall builders knew what they were in
for. "I have a hard time believing that the DestiNY executives can
deliver on their green promise," he said. "These are not developers who
have ever attempted a green project, and it's not clear to me that they
understand the extent of their commitment, financially and
practically." Even developers who have worked on multiple green
buildings would find a project of this scale to be extraordinarily
challenging, he said.


Rick Fedrizzi, president of the U.S. Green Building Council,
who consulted with the DestiNY executives on their green-building
goals, was less skeptical. "At first, it had a lot of us in disbelief.
I had never seen anything of this magnitude," Fedrizzi told Muckraker.
"But the DestiNY team kept pushing us further and further to develop a
plan that not only meets but exceeds LEED standards,"
the council's green-building guidelines, considered the benchmark for
the industry. Fedrizzi added that Congel "clearly knows how to
execute," as evidenced by his decades of success as a developer. "This
is his legacy project. He's dead serious about making this into a
world-class showcase."

A Touch of World-Class

Congel's renewable-energy goals for DestiNY are world-class indeed. To
take solar, DestiNY would produce and consume "at a minimum 32
megawatts of solar electricity," according to Pietrafesa. To put this
in perspective, 32 MW would not only be the world's biggest solar
installation, it would account for one-third of the total solar
capacity installed annually in the United States.

The complex would also consume a minimum of 28 MW of electricity from
fuel cells (with hydrogen derived from renewables), said Pietrafesa,
which in turn would increase the total amount of installed
"electricity-generating" fuel-cell capacity in the country by roughly
60 percent. DestiNY would also rely on a minimum daily feed of 120 MW
from biodiesel and biomass combined, and 44 MW of wind power -- both
mind-boggling numbers as well.


Congel has gone so far as to predict that DestiNY could accelerate
economies of scale to the point where the price of renewable energy
would become cost-competitive with fossil fuels in as little as a
decade, thereby revolutionizing the energy industry far sooner than
experts forecast.


Renewable-energy advocates are more circumspect. Thomas Leyden, a vice president with the solar-development firm PowerLight Corp.,
one of DestiNY's potential energy partners, said, "It may be the
biggest solar installation and renewables project in the world, but
there's no way DestiNY will move markets to that extent within a
decade, or even move markets in any substantial way." Leyden pointed
out that Germany is adding 600 to 800 MW of solar a year and Japan is
in the same ballpark -- meaning that DestiNY is a drop in the bucket in
terms of global economies of scale. "Nevertheless," he quickly added,
"I applaud Congel's vision, and want to be a part of it."


Pietrafesa countered that the mega-mall's long-term impact on the
energy economy will stem from its role as a trendsetter. Congel's team
is in discussions with developers nationally and overseas who are eager
"to create, as it were, their own DestiNYs," he said. He also predicted
that the DestiNY model will "inspire visitors to make clean-energy
decisions in their own lives," in turn moving markets from the
grassroots.


But could a trend in green mega-malls backfire, if it means more people
traveling farther distances to shop? Gupta pointed out that there's a
contradiction inherent in a fossil-fuel-free tourist destination that
requires a huge volume of fossil fuels to deliver the hordes of
visitors expected daily -- whether by plane, train, car, or tour bus.
"There's just no way around the fact that the energy associated with
traveling to the mall would offset the environmental benefits of a
fossil-fuel-free destination."


Still, all this doesn't negate the breathtaking ambition of Congel's
plans to construct a zero-energy retail mecca -- a powerful symbol that
profits and cheap fossil fuels aren't inextricably entwined. Who else
in this country is willing to commit the staggering sum of an estimated
$20 billion to such a vision? Who else is willing to grandstand for
renewables with a project as eccentric as a zero-energy mega-mall? At a
time when Republican leaders are pushing a myopic, five-year-old energy
bill with massive handouts to Big Oil and King Coal, Americans should
applaud the optimism and sheer audacity of Congel's dream.

AMP Section Name:Retail & Mega-Stores
  • 107 Energy
  • 183 Environment
  • 190 Natural Resources
  • 191 Tourism & Real Estate