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City Council approves funds for high-tech rooftop solar project

Friday, September 25, 2009 by Bill McCann

City staff got the go-ahead Thursday to install what will be by far Austin’s biggest rooftop solar electric project to date.


It also will be the first time the city will use a technology in which strips of solar cells, laminated in a durable, flexible polymer material less than a quarter of an inch thick can be rolled out and glued directly on a roof.


The City Council authorized staff to contract with the Texas Solar Power Company for $585,287.83 to install the solar system on the roof of the Austin Water Utility’s Glen Bell Service Center in southeast Austin. The service center is a 77,000 square-foot office, maintenance and warehouse building. The Public Works Department is overseeing the project and Austin Energy is paying for it as part of its aggressive effort to promote the use of renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gases.


“This is an exciting project that keeps Austin Energy at the forefront of innovation in technology deployment–to see how well this “peel and stick” thin film works, how easy it is to install, and how well it fits with our plans to develop a lot more solar energy in Austin,” said Karl Rabago, Austin Energy’s vice president for distributed services.” We believe this approach can provide new value to more customers, especially those with roofs where standard rack-mounted systems don’t work as well. We’re pleased to work with the Austin Water Utility to provide more clean, renewable energy to the city as we move toward meeting our solar goals.”


Photovoltaic cells, also called solar cells, collect sunlight and convert it directly into electricity. While solar electric systems have been an expensive way to generate electricity, new technological improvements and higher demand are continuing to bring down the cost of equipment and installation. State and local rebate programs and federal tax credits also have helped make solar electric more attractive to homeowners and businesses.


When completed, the service center solar project will be capable of generating 136 kilowatts of electricity, saving an estimated 167,605 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, or enough to power about 17 Austin homes for a year, city staff estimates.


Currently, the city’s biggest solar electric project is 80 kilowatts at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, said Austin Energy consulting engineer Scott Jarman. The second largest installation currently is a 28-kilowatt unit at the Palmer Events Center, he said.


A total of 29 other city facilities also have solar installations, as do 21 Austin schools, through Austin Energy, according to city staff. In addition, about 900 solar electric systems have been installed at homes and businesses through Austin Energy’s solar rebate program.


The service center project will use a product made by Michigan-based United Solar Ovonic under the “Uni-Solar” brand.


The solar-laminated material has an adhesive on the back so installers can roll out modules of solar cells and stick them directly to a roof membrane. As a result, solar modules can be installed faster and easier than a conventional solar photovoltaic unit, with no need to put holes in the roof as installers need to do with rack-mounted units, according to the company.


Austin Energy had been eyeing the service center roof as a good opportunity for installing a solar electric system, said project manager Bob Egan of the Public Works Department. When the city recently reroofed the service center, engineers made sure that it would be compatible with the new technology.  


The solar project is expected to be in operation by early next year, Egan said.

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