Event center gets energy boost

Solar panels installed free of charge will reap savings for county

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter



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Clark County’s energy goals include promoting and demonstrating efficient and effective use of renewable and consumable resources, leading by example, and identifying and pursuing new opportunities to promote sustainable practices.

Solar panels on the roof of the Clark County Event Center will move the county closer, — slowly, kilowatt by kilowatt, — to achieving its sustainable energy goals.

What makes the 118 panels recently attached to the roof of the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds notable? They were installed at no cost to taxpayers.

Mark McCauley, the county’s general services manager, said he was approached by SunStrom, a Vancouver business that’s a subsidiary of a company headquartered in Dresden, Germany.

For its first project in the United States, SunStrom wanted the event center roof.

The county agreed to lease the roof for $300 a year, McCauley said, and buy the electricity generated at a cost that’s cheaper — by a penny per kilowatt — than what Clark Public Utilities charges.

The event center panels have a peak capacity of 23 kilowatts, approximately enough electricity to power two homes.

Five other county buildings — the Public Service Center, facilities building, Center for Community Health, Juvenile Justice Center and the Clark County Jail — have a total of 628 solar panels that produce 115 kilowatts, McCauley said.

Every bit helps, he said, and the county will be evaluating other buildings for the potential to install the panels.

The key word is “bit,” because at the event center, the electricity generated by the solar panels will account for less than one percent of the amount needed to power the center, which is used year-round. The county started installing solar panels in 2008.

An energy audit found that, for last quarter, the panels saved the county $3,661, he said.

And yes, the solar photovoltaic installations work even in gray weather, McCauley said.

Clark County sits roughly at the 45th parallel, while much of Germany, a leader in solar energy, lies north of the 50th parallel.

Number of incentives

The 118 solar modules installed on the event center roof were manufactured by Solarwatt, a Dresden, Germany, company, and the life of the system will last beyond 20 years, said SunStrom North America owner Joshua Barton. He said SunStrom will own and maintain the system for seven years.

So what’s in it for SunStrom?

In addition to being paid by the county for the electricity, the company will receive federal and state incentives.

After seven years, the company will turn the rooftop solar system over to the county.

It cost $125,000 to install the panels, but now the company has a model project that will be seen by approximately 500,000 people a year. About 250,000 people go to the Clark County Fair every year, and another 250,000 go to the Clark County Event Center for other events.

A digital display at the entrance to the event center will give visitors information about the solar project, including real-time electricity production and total greenhouse gas savings data, Barton said.

SunStrom fits in with what was identified in the Columbia River Economic Development Council’s Clark County Economic Development Plan as a target industry.

“As subsidies and stimulus spending expire, solar components and technologies will be better positioned for long-term job growth than other aspects of the renewables industry,” according to the report, prepared by TIP Strategies, Inc.

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