PALM SPRINGS CENTER
This is not your high school science project.
Constructed in three rows containing 144 panels -- or 864 individual energy-converting modules -- the solar electric setup at United Parcel Service takes up nearly the entire roof of the company’s distribution facility on Commercial Road. It spans an area the size of a football field.
The sun-powered system, which went into operation in late May, is among the largest in the Coachella Valley. The Palm Springs project also marks the first time that the global shipping services giant has ever tested such a system at its 1,800 facilities worldwide.
"This is our first adventure in solar energy," said Mike McAdaragh, a plant engineering manager at the company’s Atlanta headquarters. "We’re looking at Palm Springs to see what we can get in savings, what the system can handle and what kinds of adjustments we need to make."
UPS is projecting that the system, installed by Shell Solar, will save between $15,000 and $18,000 annually in electrical costs for the 27,000-square-foot local facility. According to Mike Eaton, a regional plant engineering manager for UPS, solar power in the long run should provide about 90 percent of the Palm Springs facility’s electrical needs.
The plan by UPS is to take the solar concept to many more of the company’s facilities.
Eaton said Palm Springs was a good location choice for the UPS pilot project, thanks to the valley’s year-round abundance of sunshine and relatively mild climate. The solar array, located just west of the Palm Springs International Airport, was constructed in consultation with city officials, and it was designed to be aesthetically compatible with its surroundings.
UPS officials said they could not disclose the cost of the system, citing a policy of not discussing details of vendor contracts. But representatives of the solar power industry and Southern California Edison confirmed that a system the size of UPS’s would range in cost between $200,000 and $800,000.
Available federal and state incentive programs, however, would bring the final costs much lower. For instance, a system costing $800,000 to construct would likely qualify for nearly $385,000 in buy-down incentives from California utility agencies, another $41,500 in federal tax credits and $56,000 in state tax credits, bringing the actual final cost to just over $317,000.
Power generated by solar cells goes directly to the electrical grid serving all consumers. Business and home owners receive credits and billing discounts based on how much power their solar units generate in kilowatt hours.
According to Southern California Edison, the popularity of solar incentive programs has been on the upswing since 2001, when rolling blackouts and skyrocketing electrical costs caused a short-term crisis for the state.
Laura Rudison, a project manager with Edison, said the company received 150 applications in 1999 for its self-generation incentive program, which includes solar projects. In 2001, with the crisis under way, applications zoomed to 500.
Currently, Rudison said there are about 2,000 valley solar projects for which business and home owners have applied to Edison’s incentive program. The program pays up to 50 percent of the costs for installing solar panels, depending on how much electricity is generated.
The valley figure represents about 10 percent of total solar projects in Edison’s service area, which includes parts of 10 Southern California counties. Edison serves about 4.5 million residential and business customers.
Local use: In the last three years, local use of solar power has been growing among companies big and small.
Last year, London-based energy titan BP PLC opened a new Arco station in Palm Desert built with 108 solar panels, expected to provide 20 percent of the site’s energy requirements.
Smaller businesses are also following suit. Rancho Mirage resident Bob Winet, a longtime advocate of alternative-fuels research, said he is planning to set up solar panels, possibly this fall, at a business storage facility he owns in Palm Springs.
Winet said he’d like to see solar power take hold on a larger scale in the valley. He said government and business leaders need to give higher priority to renewable energy sources, especially in light of recent energy price hikes and concerns about deteriorating air quality in Southern California.
Lawmakers: But he acknowledged that the issue could remain on the back burner, while California lawmakers grapple with other pressing matters.
"What's really lacking is leadership at the state level," Winet said. "But right now it looks like they’ve got their minds on other things."
In the valley, the predominant alternative energy initiatives include use of compressed natural gas -- for example, in SunLine public transit vehicles -- and the harnessing of wind power via numerous privately-run turbines.
UPS in recent years has embarked on a number of alternative energy programs. Companywide, it operates 1,024 delivery vehicles that run on compressed natural gas. It has 764 vehicles running on propane in Canada, and anther 82 in Mexico City.
In November 2002, UPS deployed what the company said were the package industry’s first alternative-fuel tractor-trailers, and the company also has tests in the works for hybrid electric and fuel-cell vehicles.
At the Palm Springs UPS facility, district business manager Rich Day said the solar panels have caused no problems in terms of downtime or outages, and required no change in operations outside of monitoring the system occasionally via an on-site computer.
"It was a seamless transition," Day said. "You really couldn’t tell that anything had been changed."
Written by: Yuri Kageyama, Associated Press
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