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Merck's Footprint Goes Solar

Global pharmaceutical Merck is using the power of the sun, with some help from federal stimulus money, to raise the green level of its facilities; the most recent of which is at its Upper Gwynedd, Pa., complex. Completed in 2011, the array of solar panels provide enough power to reduce that office complex's energy consumption by about 14 percent.

Merck did the job with the help of two electrical contractors: Sewell, N.J., company Ray Angelini Inc. (RAI) and Pagoda Electrical, Reading, Pa. RAI was the primary solar power contractor for design engineering, installation and operation, and it has been responsible for maintenance since completion. Pagoda provided parking deck lighting, additional fire alarms and security installation.

The $11 million project was funded in part by the American Recovery and Restoration Act (ARRA), which provided $875,000 toward the expense. Merck has also received a $937,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. The system at the Pennsylvania facility will allow Merck to meet its global goal of reducing its overall greenhouse gas emissions at least 10 percent by 2015.

The solar panels have provided an estimated 1.5 million watts (W) of power and a total of 1.695 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year. The company facility typically uses about four megawatts (MW) of power on weekdays, so the panels are able to cover as much as 30 percent of that. On weekends, however, the panels generate more power than the facility uses, so the remainder is returned to the grid managed by Exelon's Pennsylvania utility company, PECO. Rather than selling the energy back to PECO, Merck gains credits for negative energy use during those times.

The project's 1,500-kilowatt (kW) fixed panel solar photovoltaic system includes 164,000 square feet of solar panels, on a total of 6,400 crystalline panels, with 72 cells in each panel, each fixed at a 10-degree angle. The panels are fixed rather than mobile because Northeast weather does not lend itself well to the sensitive motor components necessary for moving panels. Each panel outputs about 46 volts (V) of power.

In addition to solar panels, Merck installed two recharging stations at one of the parking decks for plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. Also, lighting was installed for the top floor of each parking deck, which were once open to the elements, and are covered by the solar panel canopies, said Michael Abbatiello, global engineering principal engineer and project manager at Merck.

For solar design and installation, RAI signed a contract with Merck in July 2010. Its staff then began design work, collaborating with the pharmaceutical company, and got on-site to begin construction in August. The system was delivered in three phases said Bob O'Brien, RAI project manager. Initially one 500-kW system went live on Dec. 31, 2010 and the remaining two were brought online May 2011.

Pagoda Electric, a woman-owned business enterprise (WBE), provided wiring for lighting underneath the solar panels that will illuminate the upper parking decks, as well as a life safety and security installation, which includes fire alarms, security access, and lightning protection. The company first removed the existing pole lights that stood on the top tier of the parking garage, which would have interfered with the solar panels. The addition of the structural steel and panels created dark areas on the parking deck, requiring more lighting on the top deck. At the time, Merck also revamped the stairwells in the parking decks, so Pagoda installed the Fire Alarm system and security.

The solar work, in the meantime, took place throughout late 2010. In the earliest phase of the project, RAI "worked May through August refining the solar design," O'Brien said, while some of the design elements were ongoing throughout the construction.

"The biggest challenge for us was to design and deliver [install] a structural steel canopy to support the solar panels but not interfere with the parking spaces when finished," O'Brien said. Another challenge was meeting the weight limitation of the parking deck structures themselves. The site configuration required 300-ton and 500-ton cranes for erection of steel and an almost completely hand erected racking and panel system. The team of about 30 electricians managed this.

Both Pagoda and RAI also had to meet the demands in the Merck project for stringent safety guidelines. RAI employed a full time safety director who oversaw the installation to ensure the crane operation and steel erection was done safely.

Altogether, when finished, the 6,125 solar panels covered about 3 1/2 acres of space over the three parking decks. RAI also installed six 260W inverters, with each of the three arrays leading into two inverters, and a 1,500 kilovolt-ampere substation to take voltage from 480 to 13.2 kilovolts, Abbatiello said.

Each of the three completed arrays will consist of a steel structure built by RAI with a canopy of solar panel racking system mounted to that structure. While the system will output at 480V at each of the three arrays, the alternating current (AC) transformer then steps up the voltage, and the AC output of inverters will be 250 kW each. That power will then be distributed around the campus by unit substations—about six to eight altogether.

The first of the three systems was brought live at the end of 2010, with the next in the first quarter of 2011 and the third in the third quarter of 2011, bringing the total power output to 1.5 million watts. Once complete, the garage will be able to be used as originally designed with the loss of about nine parking spaces.

The benefits for Merck will be less power consumption and lower utility costs. In addition, for every 1 milliwatt of energy Merck produces, it receives one SREC credit.

This is only one of many green projects with an overall goal of reducing its carbon footprint.

"We have to invest so much capitol upfront," Abbatiello said, "but the stimulus money and federal tax credit makes this possible." Abbatiello expected output to vary according to the weather but said the array is positioned to provide the optimum angle for solar energy during the height of the solar output, around mid August.

The two electric vehicle charging stations will allow 220V or 110V charging with up to two vehicles at each station at a time. They will accept credit cards, which initially will be Merck cards linked to accounts with the company. In the future, Merck vehicles, Abbatiello said, pointing out that the company had ordered an electric vehicle with a combustion engine for facilities staff, could also use those stations.

Merck's new solar panels also may make the Pennsylvania facility a good laboratory environment for shading studies to research the effect heat has on the level of pollution emitted by cars. Cars stored in a shaded environment, researchers have suggested, may release less emissions. That theory is being put to the test by area Pennsylvania universities, and the Merck solar canopies may be one location for that research. The top floor of the four-story parking deck is also expected to become more pleasant for drivers, according to Merck, since until now employees avoided the top level when it was hot or if there was snow.

This is not the only green energy project for Merck. In Whitehouse Station, N.J., its world headquarters are partially powered by a ground mounted solar system. In Rahway, N.J., it also has rooftop systems installed.

For its own part, RAI has gained its greatest success by installing systems that out-perform the company's projections. The demand for solar power has helped RAI's solar division grow exponentially. RAI launched its solar division seven years ago under the leadership of Sean Angelini, and since it opened, it has doubled its business every year, he said. The company works with large Fortune 500 companies, most in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, many of which have sustainability requirements they are trying to meet. The company provides engineering of solar projects, installation and follow up O&M (and maintenance).

RAI typically offers a 20-year performance guarantee, but Angelini said they are expected to outlast that by another 20 years. More notably, however, is the kilowatt-hours the systems provide.

"Our systems are so efficient we design them to over perform," he said. He attributes that in part to quality components, made in the United States. And, he said, "We set up the wiring to minimize power loss. We do things the others don't do. It's not how big the system is but how many kilowatt-hours we can promise." The average is 108.66 percent of the promised output.

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