Solar Power

Community College Leads Solar Energy Initiative

Founded in 1967 and located on 35 acres of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, Western Massachusetts’ Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) is the only technical community college in the state. Now, with the addition of an 82.9-kilowatt solar array on the roof of Building 20, STCC is claiming another first; the largest solar energy setup in the region, and one of the largest in the state as well.

Building 20 houses 14 health programs running 24/7, a bookstore, a stream of traffic that would make New York City envious, and 272 photovoltaic (PV) panels on its roof poised to turn sunshine into electricity. The panels’ architecture is such that the installation did not even penetrate the roof’s membrane, and no building permit was needed.

It certainly outshines that of nearby Technology Park, where three years ago the school put in the first 33-kilowatt solar array.

In spite of its status as the only technical college in the state, STCC didn’t have a lot of money lying around, so it funded the newest project with a $ 407,000 grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the state’s economic development agency for renewable energy, the innovation economy, and e-health initiatives.

This reduced the cost of the project to $ 256,000, which the school financed by issuing a like amount of zero-interest, clean renewable energy bonds, or CREBs, from the Internal Revenue Service.

This newest solar installation will save the school about $ 19,000 per year in utility costs, or 1.7 percent of the total outlay needed to run the school, which has a more than one-million annual energy bill, but as STCC President Ira Rubenzahl observes, it’s a step in the right direction on a planet faced with increased global warming as a result of fossil-fuel power plants emitting carbon dioxide.

The system will pay for itself in 18 years (or less, if electricity prices continue to rise), but also adds value to the school’s academic program, since the earlier installation in Technology Park provided only limited access to students interested in pursuing a career in solar energy design, manufacture and installation.

Perhaps more important, the solar array on Building 20 feeds directly into a Web-based databank which students can access to monitor the system’s performance, including ambient temperatures, power output, and accumulated power production, and students can use the accumulated records – stored over five years – to evaluate output, savings and solar efficiency figures year-over-year.

This input is valuable to school programs that deal with building design and construction, offering students the opportunity to see first-hand how solar arrays relate not only to installation techniques but, down the road, to architectural parameters and civil engineering specifications like roof loads and stress factors.

Sitting on a natural elevation, with tall buildings equipped with flat roofs, the STCC campus is an ideal location for solar power arrays. Which means, of course, that the school has plans for more solar, the next units likely equipped with solar trackers or involving concentrating solar energy via parabolic mirrors.

Similar solar initiatives, backed by ARRA, are popping up all over the country, leading many renewable energy experts to conclude that 2009 may be the year in which solar makes an indelible mark on the energy sector – an opinion not supported by Forbes Magazine, which sees renewable energy as having had its heyday from 2006 to 2008, when such huge financial institutions as the now-defunct Lehman Bros. financed renewable energy in exchange for tax credits.

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