Blackout Fallout Getting Off The Grid

August 29, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Building owners who may be thinking about getting off the grid, at least partially, following the nation’s biggest blackout should probably get acquainted with such terms as distributed generation, net metering and photovoltaic (PV) panels.

Aquinas College did, and did so long before a fifth of the nation had its plug pulled last month.

The Catholic liberal arts college on Fulton Street got ahead of the curve four years ago next week when school officials dedicated the Jarecki Center for Advanced Learning9.

The 21,000-square-foot building has state-of-the-art technology inside to meet student needs and the needs of businesses that want distance learning and teleconferencing. But the building also has something on the outside that meets the needs of the inside and is largely unnoticeable to anyone who goes there.

That discreet something is three sets of photovoltaic panels that collect the sun’s rays and convert a renewable energy source into electricity that is used throughout the Jarecki Center. The panels were attached directly to the roof and are practically invisible. The solar-powered system gives the building a total capacity of 10kW, which handles a goodly portion of the center’s energy needs.

“The system was never designed to handle a hundred percent of the building, a hundred percent of the time. It was partially designed as something of a demonstration site to show what could be done with photovoltaic,” said John Andary, director of engineering for local design firm Progressive AE.

Progressive AE designed the center, an extensive project that included laying out a new, pollution-free energy source. Local philanthropist Peter Wege paid for the purchase and installation of the panels.

Wege is a longtime supporter of Aquinas and efforts that are friendly to the environment, so picking up the tab for the PV system at the Jarecki Center was a natural action for him to take. Wege also worked with Clare Jarecki, the center’s namesake, on the fundraising effort to get the $6.5 million structure built.

Don Nolte, an electrical engineer at Progressive, told the Business Journal that it roughly cost $150,000 to buy and install the panels. Part of that charge, he said, also included roofing materials as the panels were incorporated into the roof.

“I think it’s one of the best-looking designs I’ve seen. It’s integrated into the building,” he said.

The percentage of the building’s total energy demand met by the panels depends on the type of day it is. Nolte said on a hot and humid day with plenty of scorching sunshine the system likely serves up about 7 percent of the building’s total energy needs. On those days, the center uses more energy to keep the interior cool while the lights are on and all the computers are running. On milder days with fewer people inside, the PV system will be able to handle a larger percentage of the building’s total demand for electricity.

Over the course of a calendar year, Nolte felt the panels would handle 5 percent of the building’s total kilowatt hours. Over the last three years, he said the system has generated about 35,000 kilowatt hours of electrical energy.

United Solar Systems of Troy made the panels. Buist Sheet Metal and Allied Electric were the roofing and electrical contractors, respectively. Nine arrays were installed on the roof, which was set at an angle of 42 degrees. Each array was made up of 18 PV modules for a total of 162 panels. The panels were laid out across three horizontal roof sections.

PV panels can be expensive. But Andary said the prices are coming down because more people have decided to use the system and more firms are starting to manufacture the components. The blackout may cause even more people to look into PV panels to keep their businesses running, even if only for part of each day that a grid is down. As demand rises, even more companies will get into producing the panels.

Systems come with and without battery storage units. The one at the Jarecki Center doesn’t have batteries, which capture energy during the day that can be released after the sun sets. Of course, adding batteries does make the system costlier. But at the same time, what is each day of lost business worth? And there are other alternative sources to explore besides PV, such as wind turbines, fuel cells and wood-fired boilers that are fed by homegrown tree farms.

Most of the larger businesses in the area already own a backup system, most often a gas-powered generator. So it’s usually the smaller ones that are left in the dark when a grid fails. But even when the grid is running, an alternative source can cut daily energy costs, which are all but certain to rise significantly in the near future, and eventually pay for itself.

Other key terms include net metering and distributed generation. Andary explains the latter, first.

“This is small sources of power at lots of locations. So you don’t have a big, coal-fired plant that goes down and takes out a bunch of other plants (and) then nobody has power. Instead you have a lot of entities out there that are creating their own power and feeding it into the grid,” he said.

“That way one source doesn’t take out a whole lot of power needs in an area.”

Net metering can have a big payoff. Net metering lets someone sell their excess energy back to the grid. But it’s not a practice that is generally allowed in Michigan, yet, only on a case-by-case basis.

“That’s unfortunate,” said Andary. “A lot of folks would be more interested in selling these systems if there was a way to get more of a payback for it. You’d get paid for the energy you’re generating that you don’t need and that will really be the start of distributed generation.”

Andary said an effort is underway to get lawmakers to approve net-metering legislation. With heavily populated portions of the state having lost power from the grid failure a few weeks ago, the time to add pressure to that effort might never be better.

“The technology is just now getting out there,” said Andary. “But we feel in a decade it’s going to be commonplace and you’ll see that almost every building out there is going to have some kind of a system that will be generating electricity.”           

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