July 16, 2008

Veterans Hospital in Riverside, Calif., Installing 1,600 Solar Panels

By Darrell R. Santschi, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.

Jul. 15--Workers are installing 1,600 solar panels on the roof of the four-story Jerry L. Pettis Memorial VA Medical Center in hopes of cutting the Loma Linda hospital's electricity bill by at least $60,000 a year.

The silicon panels, about 4 feet long and 3 feet wide, each generate 185 watts of electricity during daylight hours. They are expected to begin generating electricity by the middle of next month.

The system is part of a Veterans Affairs-wide push to use renewable energy under an order signed by President Bush in January 2007. VA hospitals are using a variety of energy sources, including wind generators to be installed at some facilities next year.

The Loma Linda hospital opted for solar panels because they will fit comfortably over 70 percent of its flat, 200,000-square-foot roof, said Larry Barrett, the hospital's energy manager.

The VA medical center treats 57,000 veterans a year, most from the Inland area, and has 3,200 full- and part-time employees and volunteers.

The solar energy system was purchased for $2 million from SunWize, a New York-based company with a field office in Palm Desert. The panels capture light and convert it to electricity, gradually increasing their output as the sun rises.

Workmen used a crane to lift the panels and some equipment to the roof two weeks ago.

They brought in a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter Sunday to hoist the biggest piece, a 2,000-pound power converter, and carefully lower it in place next to a wall near the center of the roof.

"We would have had to use a huge crane to lift it up there," Barrett said.

The helicopter took fewer than five minutes to lift the converter from a nearby parking lot and carry it to the roof.

Hospital safety officer Kim Polan said the move was scheduled Sunday because only two workers would have to be evacuated from a clinical laboratory on the fourth floor in the helicopter's flight path.

The Loma Linda hospital is located just across Barton Road from the Loma Linda Civic Center, where city officials installed a similar number of panels on the roofs of buildings and carports earlier this year for $2.75 million.

In addition to cutting the city's utility bill by about $8,000 a month, city officials said they hoped it would inspire residents to install solar systems in homes and businesses.

Although the solar panels at the VA medical center will provide only 2 percent of the electricity used at the hospital, Barrett said, "It is still worth doing."

Southern California Edison Co. is reimbursing the hospital almost one-third of the cost as incentive and the cost savings figure to accelerate as electricity costs go up.

"It's a good thing to do because we will save on electricity," Barrett said. "Also, it's good for the environment. You don't burn as much fossil fuel, so our carbon footprint is reduced."

He estimated that it will take 21 years for the system to pay for itself, but with regular maintenance, he expects the panels to work for at least another 10 years after that.

"There is not a lot of maintenance required," he said. "What it needs a lot of times is just to wash off the panels so their efficiency will not be reduced."


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Copyright (c) 2008, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.

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