Could a mall mogul’s dream project give a big boost to renewables?

Image: DestiNY USA.

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.

Retail mecca seeking presidential pat on the back.

Image: DestiNY USA.

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.

All this, and nary a drop of petroleum.

Image: DestiNY USA.

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.”

And then, of course, there’s the obvious fact that it’s a mall — a massive temple to American-style hyper-consumerism.

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.