Oxy Solar Array, The Eastsider LA, Jan. 2013

(Photo courtesy of Occidental College)

Occidental College prepares to plug in to solar power

By Brenda Rees

After experiencing a series of setbacks to the initial schedule, the $6.8 million 1-megawatt solar array at Occidental College continues to move ahead with the plan to have the entire project plugged-in, hooked up and generating power by the college’s Founder Day on April 20, 2013.

Construction of the ground-mounted array began about a year ago with the hopes it would have been completed by the spring. However, engineering issues and construction details have delayed the project. According to Oxy Communications Director James Tranquada, the unique design of the array and the fact that city and city planners don’t have specific standards for array projects has made for “a lot of back and forth with details we didn’t expect. There are not a lot of ground-mounted arrays in urban areas. This is completely new.”

Indeed, once completed, Oxy’s solar array will be the largest ground-mounted solar arrays in the City of Los Angeles and one of the largest arrays in the country on a small college campus.

The nearly 5,000 panel project is divided into two parts –  one-third of those panels have been installed atop shade structured in a campus parking lot near what is known as Fuji Hill. (It’s anticipated that those panels will be hooked up and operational in the next month or so.)

The rest of the panels are placed nearby on a southwest-facing hillside. These panels are mounted two to three feet above the ground and will hug the topography of the slope in a curving design base on a hysteresis loop, a mathematical expression that describes the result of an alternating magnetic field applied to ferromagnetic material. (For those mathematically and/or scientifically-challenged, the project resembles either an elongated comma or a fancy paisley design.)

Either way, Oxy is taking aesthetics into account in the creation of large solar arrays; most arrays – especially the BrightSource project in the Mojave Desert – are creatively boring and very utilitarian in scope.

Once both systems are up and running, the system will  provide about 11% percent of the college’s annual electrical usage and cut its electric bill by more than $200,000 a year.

The creative design for the array – envisioned by the firm Lettuce Office in collaboration with college art faculty – uses SunPower panels, known for their efficiency in the trade.

Tranquada said that the ground-mounted panels were not first on the list for Oxy. They wanted to use as much rooftop installation as possible. But with so many historic buildings with red tile (can’t install panels on that), the idea of solar had to go down-down to the ground.

More electrical news at Oxy:

Related to the solar array are new electrical metering devices recently installed on campus classrooms, dorms and other school buildings. It’s the first time the campus is looking at energy (water and electricity) usage. “We can begin to track and accumulate data on where our energy is going,” says Tranquada. “This way we can establish a baseline and encourage reduction as seems fit.”

Watch how high you crank your stereo, students! And turn off that bathroom light!

Posted in The Eastsider LA.

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