SPSCC rooftop generates ‘green’ energy

Solar panels were installed on the roof of Building 35 in 2005 thanks to a grant from the Department of Ecology. Photo provided by Penny Koal.

Solar power is in the news a lot these days. “Avatar” director James Cameron, for example, recently had 960 kilowatts of solar power installed at his studio and said the “Avatar” sequels will be completely solar-powered. There’s a solar power revolution happening in the world and South Puget Sound Community College is a part of it.

Resting atop Building 35, the Natural Sciences Building, is a 10 kilowatt array of photovoltaic cells, or solar panels. The panels were installed by Sunergy, a Seattle-based company.

The power they generate is fed back to the grid, and the college is compensated between $1,200 and $1,600 once a year for it by Puget Sound Energy according to the Dean for Facilities Planning and Operations, Penny Koal.

As a double environmental bonus, Building 35 is certified LEED Gold. LEED, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a voluntary, consensus-based, market­-driven program that provides third-party verification of green buildings.

Some students felt there should be more solar power on campus.

“I think we should have more, because it’ll save on future costs, not only for faculty members, the Financial Department, but also for students, and that money can be used for Student Services,” student Toby Colby said.

“I think having more solar panels would be awesome because it’s a more natural form of energy, which we don’t get too often here in Olympia,” said student Veronica Saibel.

Koal, helped plan the Natural Sciences building back in 2004. “It was not originally intended, when we designed and built the building in 2004 and 2005 to put the panels on but the Department of Ecology came up with a grant that helped fund them. So we decided, hey, this is a good thing!” she said.

The panels are cleaned once a year to keep them at maximum productive capability. The cleaning is done in-house by SPSCC staff.

Most solar panels have a long payback period, or the time it takes to generate enough power to break even on the cost of the panel’s manufacture. SPSCC’s panels are no exception, and they are currently at about the halfway point. “It’s about a 16 to 18 year payback, and so they’ve been there about eight years,” said Koal.

Because of the long payback, acquiring more solar panels is on the back burner as far as new eco-improvements for the school go. “We do have some ESCO (energy services company) opportunities here on campus that would qualify for some Department of Commerce grant money, and we’ll rigorously pursue it, because every little bit helps,” Koal said. Building control upgrades and fluorescent lighting have the shortest payback periods.

In addition to the solar panels, Building 35 has other eco-friendly features to it. The office wing is naturally ventilated, so it has no mechanical heating or cooling.

It has radiant heat in the floor to stave off cold winters, and the windows on the South side of the building have solar-powered fans that bring the air in to cool the rooms.

This required some adaptations on the part of the tenants-to-be back in 2005, which they accepted.

Koal said, “People would have to understand: dress in layers in winter. That sort of thing. And when it gets hot, that’s just the nature of the beast.”

Worldwide, solar still represents about 1 percent of total energy production. But the technology has made great strides in recent years in its attempts to satisfy an energy-hungry world.

“The technology is mind-boggling, what’s coming out now, and they’re getting lighter. You can actually take a film that you put on your windows, and they’ll generate energy,” said Koal.