Knowledge Is Solar Power

By Claire Swedberg | Mar 15, 2012




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As a result of growing demand for alternative energy in Illinois and Missouri, Pyramid Electrical Contractors Inc. in Fairview Heights, Ill., and St. Louis, Mo., specializes in solar work by installing photovoltaic panels to power schools, residences and commercial buildings. In the Midwest, Illinois led the way in solar deployments by offering refunds to residential and commercial customers who install panels to supplement or provide total power for their facilities. Missouri also enacted its own comparative alternative-energy incentive program.

For Pyramid Electrical Contractors, which conducts business in both states, the time was right to explore solar power, which company management predicts will become a mainstay in power installations. Pyramid Electrical was founded in 1982 to do commercial and industrial work for the greater St. Louis area as well as Metro East in Illinois. The company offers electrical work for industrial, commercial, institutional and residential facilities, as well as low-voltage work for telecommunications. The company’s first solar customer was in 2008.

In 2009, Pyramid Electrical held the first of a series of seminars introducing its commercial and residential customers to renewable energy, how it could be used, and what it would mean to a facility’s power costs. The initial meeting, held at the Sunset Hills Country Club in December 2009, described the available technology and included financial information from representatives of lending institutions who explained the loan process. From about 75 customers who were invited to that seminar, more than a dozen are seeking funding or are going ahead with solar installations, including offices, schools, colleges and municipalities. For customers with public relations high among their priorities, renewable energy is especially desirable.

“Those are the people we consider our customer base,” said David Lange, Pyramid Electrical’s project manager in charge of the Renewable Energy Division. “A customer who wants to go green, who wants that PR, they are more likely to opt for solar.”

Pyramid Electrical’s portfolio
Each of the installations the company has done, largely schools and residences, is unique.

“There is no cookie-cutter installation,” Lange said.

In each new case, Pyramid Electrical designed a system based on the building location, the sun and shade, the pitch of the roof and where it faces south, which, in the Northern Hemisphere, is the best orientation for solar panels. Lange starts with a site visit to determine the power options based on the roof position and pitch. Commercial buildings also need to consider any rooftop units already in place and whether they will create shading issues. He then calculates the customer’s power bills and quotes not only how much electricity a system would generate but what the electric bill would be. Pyramid Electrical also helps with rebates to ensure the customer gets the return from the government that makes the project more affordable.

The technology is still expensive. With rebates, Pyramid Electrical advises its customers they can conservatively expect a return on investment in six to eight years, Lange said.

In 2009, Pyramid Electrical installed a solar-power system at Edwardsville High School, Edwardsville, Ill. The system serves dual purposes as a power source and opportunity for education. Pyramid Electrical donated the equipment and labor for this project, installing a ground-mounted system with six panels laid out in such a way that the building at no time casts a shadow over the panels. The system was installed in about five days and completed in September as the school year began. Together, the panels generate about 1 kilowatt of energy, enough to provide some supplemental power and visual training for students at the school.

Pyramid Electrical then linked the panels to a web box with data cable, which then extended to the back-end computers, enabling students to view the panels’ performance throughout the day or week based on the angle of the sun and the cloud conditions.

At Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey, Ill., Pyramid Electrical did something similar. It installed panels on the school’s roof with a data link to the Internet, so school students and faculty members could monitor the panel’s output. There, the electrical contractor installed a 3.5-kilowatt (kW) roof-mount system to include 16 panels. This system provides typically 1.58 kW of power, with a tie in to the grid. The panels were installed on the Advanced Technology Center (Trimpe Building), where the solar output could be reviewed by faculty members and students. The school also teaches courses for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) apprentices and journeymen, and one of those courses focuses on solar power installation. Initially, the courses were offered in four-week sessions on Fridays and Saturdays. This year, the classes have become part of the curriculum.

Mike Morgan, assistant professor and coordinator of corporate education and training at the college, leads the courses and helped with Pyramid Electrical’s solar installation at the school. Morgan’s own background is in renewable energy. Having worked in the pipeline industry, he began installing photovoltaic units along the rural sections of pipeline to manage data acquisition at those sites. He started driving an electric car in the early 1980s.

“I enjoy staying a step ahead,” he said. “At the school, there was a nice convergence of opportunities.” As part of the school’s green committee, he was in search of renewable solutions to bring down energy consumption, but he also needed to prepare to teach solar-power classes. The committee began researching solar options, hired Pyramid, and the system was installed in September 2009.

For students and faculty members, it’s been an excellent tool, Morgan said. A gateway through the inverter was placed to enable students to monitor the system and conduct practical demonstrations.

“They can see how it varies, how it will operate,” he said, adding that the school may be looking into wind power in the future as well.

“I truly believe, by 2030, the country will be very different than it is now,” Morgan said. “We are going to evolve to the point where we have a smart grid that will include solar and wind power. Contractors will continue to do business as normal for the next five or 10 years. Beyond that, we will be more heavily involved in the smart grid.”

Solar catches on
Illinois resident Clifford Clark, who has since employed Pyramid to install solar panels on his home, learned about solar power at Lewis & Clark. Clark was in the Peace Corps and had seen how solar panels could power homes. So, when he acquired his mother’s home, he began considering ways to make it more energy-efficient. He educated himself on the 30 percent rebate he could gain from the state of Illinois and another 30 percent from the federal government.

He met with Pyramid Electrical about the installation. Clark hoped to install a system that would sell extra electricity back to the power company for energy credits. In February 2010, Pyramid Electrical’s Lange visited the site and put together an estimate for 16 panels. Ultimately Clark chose to install 18 of them. The system was fully installed on June 26, 2010, and shortly thereafter, the power company, Ameren, installed the new meter.

“It took only three days to complete the full installation,” he said, “and each panel now produces about 180 watts.”

Clark was on-hand for the installation. “I was handing up the panels,” he said.

The only major problem came at the moment of startup, when the inverter refused to power on Pyramid Electrical’s technician called the manufacturer and was instructed to run a dehumidifier for several days. Then the inverter turned on easily and now produces up to 20 kW of power.

“The first week I didn’t turn on the A/C, and I had extra watts,” Clark said. “The first bill had me ahead [of consumption] by about 14 kW.”

In the winter, he expects to collect less power because of the lower angle of the sun and obstructions, such as snow.

Clark’s long-term goal is to learn more about solar power and take it to developing nations.

In the meantime, as Illinois’ rebate program has generated more solar work, Pyramid Electrical expects to see the same in Missouri as the state is offering a similar rebate program.

“Each state is different with their individual packages,” said Ken Keeney, Pyramid Electrical’s CEO and owner. “The more solar power we use, the greater the relief on current powering systems. It’s important to Pyramid Electrical to be part of that process.”

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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