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VA center to add solar panels

$10.2M project to cover 570 parking spaces

Posted: April 1, 2012 – 11:18pm

By Russell Anglin

Amarillo Globe-News


The Thomas E. Creek Veterans Affairs Medical Center will cover some parking spots — as well as a chunk of its energy costs — with solar panels.

In early March, construction crews began installing steel beams at a section of the facility’s parking lot. In four to five months, a $10.2-million initiative to top about 570 parking spaces with solar panels will be complete, energy engineer Sam Hagins said.

“We’re thinking about 30 percent of our consumption can be (generated) with these,” he said of the panels. “We consume probably 10 (million) to 11 million kilowatt-hours a year and this thing will probably do 3 (million) or 4 million.”

In June 2010, Hagins oversaw the construction of the VA system’s first solar-panel-covered parking lot at the hospital in Big Spring, he said. On Feb. 9, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs announced it awarded $18.5 million for solar power systems in San Antonio, Little Rock, Ark., and Mather, Calif.

The Amarillo VA’s project was funded from a $56.7-million Department of Veterans Affairs grant, announced in July, to bring projects to five cities from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles.

Hagins said this is likely to spread to other VA facilities.

“I think about 40 other VAs are wanting to do this now,” Hagins said. “I think the big attraction to it is first it gives us covered parking in the hot sun … and also there’s no environmental impact.”

Hagins said putting solar panels on top of covered parking spaces is less problematic than putting them on roofs because roof panels would have to be removed for any roofing work to get done.

“The biggest attraction to me is that I was able to get it done fast because I didn’t need to do a big environmental impact study because I’m just building on top of an existing lot,” he said.

An average home uses about 1,000 kilowatt-hours per month, and starting June 1 the average electricity cost will be roughly 10 cents per kilowatt hour, Xcel Energy spokesman Wes Reeves said Friday.

Walt Baum, executive vice president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, said alternative energy sources are becoming more viable as technology advances, but the U.S. will continue to rely on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

“The problem with solar and wind is … they still rely on when the wind is blowing and when the sun is shining,” he said.

He also noted stiff competition with China in manufacturing affordable solar panels. The U.S. is facing a conflict between encouraging Americans to use more solar energy and preventing China from overtaking U.S. solar panel makers with lower-priced panels.

The Department of Commerce is imposing import fees on solar panels made in China after officials found Chinese solar panel makers have received Chinese government subsidies of up to 4.73 percent, The Associated Press reported.

Controversy surrounding Solyndra Inc., a solar panel manufacturer that went bankrupt after receiving a $500-million federal loan from the Obama administration, has added fuel to U.S. solar panel manufacturers’ complaints as the bankrupted company cited competition from China as a reason for its failure, the AP reported.

Baum said a major reason for Solyndra’s failure was the government interfered with the free market by pushing alternative energy.

“When you support one technology over another you run into issues that you had with Solyndra and other issues,” Baum said. “Whenever you can have a market-based approach, generally that is the best way to direct new technology. Solar is not quite (right) for all applications. There are applications where solar makes a lot of sense.”

In October, Hagins installed a thermal cooling system at the VA, which stores ice in 18 tanks that hold 1,775 gallons each. Water circulates through the tanks and then is piped to the hospital to cool the building. Hagins said Amarillo’s is the only VA facility that currently uses this system.

The VA will use the solar and cooling systems concurrently, Hagins said.

“On a real bright, hot day, we may be able to produce more power than we need,” he said.