Houston, TX – A rainy day can be the best time for a personal inspection of one of the many solar power arrays cropping up on convention center roofs across the nation. Crossing the broad and rain-slick roof of the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB) required me to walk gingerly. But the gray Gulf Coast day also made it easier to see the relatively tiny solar garden in one corner of the bright white 16-acre expanse. “When the sun is out, it can be pretty blinding,” said Luther Villagomez, general manager of the convention center.
White roofs are a long-time standard method of reducing the cost of cooling a convention center because they reflect the sun’s rays. They have also become a basic feature of green convention centers that trade show organizers and association meeting planners continue to seek out regardless of the tight economy.
“Our green initiatives are still one of the first questions meeting planners ask about us,” said Art Zehnder, director of sales for the GRB.
Funding from various government agencies and utilities remove much of the financial onus from facility managers. At the same time, sentiment from the White House down to City Hall these days is staunchly behind green energy as an environmental and economic benefit that can come at a relatively modest cost.
For convention centers, green is also a trait that is highly marketable. In Houston, the 100-kilowatt solar system atop the GRB is considered a research project facilitated by a consortium of energy and architectural firms and the not-for-profit Houston Endowment Inc. The pilot project employs two different types of collectors that add to the knowledge of which materials work best. The array itself is not open to the public. The roof is accessible only through a padlocked storm-cellar style door that can require two people to muscle open. However, monitors inside the center and on its web site at www.houstonconventionctr.com allow attendees to see how much electricity is being produced in real time.
Solar is also a component of overall GRB marketing to show organizers, much like the center’s handy third-story loading dock that is built to the same engineering specs as the adjacent U.S. 59 freeway. Zehnder said solar power was a perfect fit with the new Discovery Green park across the street from the front entrance. The 12-acre park offers a natural respite for attendees and a superb venue for corporate functions held in conjunction with the conventions and trade shows taking place at the time. “We basically can market the park as additional meeting space,” Zehnder said.
The park also serves as a gateway to downtown Houston and is a short stroll from Houston Pavilions, an ambitious new retail and entertainment complex catering to trade show attendees. The development includes everything from a House of Blues to upscale restaurants and unique retailers. Nearby, but not part of Houston Pavilions, is The Tipping Point, which sells only the hippest and artiest of tennis shoes.
Houston’s new layout did not directly evolve from the solar system tucked in the corner of the GRB, but solar energy was and continues to be a cornerstone of the type of green venues that are still attracting trade shows and their coveted crowds.