County’s First Solar Operation Planned For Rec Center

SNOW HILL — In a continuing effort to utilize alternative energy, the Worcester County Recreation Center will play host to a Photovoltaic Solar Energy System within the next few months.

Funded by a $299,692 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant, which will go through the Maryland Energy Administration (MEA), the project will include the construction of solar panels adjacent to the recreation center.

Those panels will provide a share of the energy needed to operate the building. Current plans call for a 37 kilowatt (KW) system to be built. However, the Worcester County Commissioners are hoping to get more bang for their buck with the almost $300,000 grant.

“Why aren’t we building one bigger?” asked Commissioner Virgil Shockley.

Estimating the ARRA grant would be able to finance a system as large as 58 KW, Shockley added, “You might as well build it big enough to make it count.”

County Engineer Bill Bradshaw agreed that the grant might be able to provide for a larger system, but pointed out that pre-set limitations on the grant meant that the installation could not go beyond a 60 KW cap. He promised Shockley that an attempt would be made to settle on a larger system by adding panels in 5 KW increments. When asked if he felt the MEA would be receptive to enlarging the system, Bradshaw remarked that “it seems feasible.”

Shockley hedged his bets, however.
“I figure we’ve got a 50-50 chance of getting the additions,” he said.

Even if the county is unable to acquire permission for a larger system, the 37 KW installation would still be able to provide about 10 percent of the center’s electricity, according to Bradshaw.

On a day with mostly clear skies, he guessed that the panels could deliver 250 to 300 KW. Over time, that could significantly cut down on electric bills for the county.

“This is an exciting opportunity,” said Sharon Reilly, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks.

Reilly said that her department was proud to host the county’s first on-site, alternative energy system at one of its buildings.

Though the county owns a number of buildings that could have been connected to solar panels, the center boasts significant qualifications. Due to its public use nature, the building needs a large amount of energy during peak operations. Additionally, the center serves as a shelter during emergency situations. Finally, it is one of the few properties owned by the county to have enough land to support a large solar installation.

“You have to have the area to put the solar panels,” said Shockley.

Locations such as the courthouse or police station simply don’t have the acreage to support such an installation since a 37 KW section of panels would encompass about 3,700 square feet. Since the center has roughly 80 acres of land nearby, the system will be a drop in the bucket as far as taking up space.

“I’m glad people had the foresight to preserve the land for the citizens and visitors to Worcester County,” said Reilly.

While the idea of having 100 percent of the center’s power supplied via solar panels appealed to Reilly, she pointed out that there is a “delicate balance” between having open park land available and development, even if that development is for something as environmentally friendly as alternative energy.

“It would be something to explore,” she said.

There are other places for panels besides parks, though, said Reilly. Her idea is to look into installing systems where there is already construction.

For example, roofs or parking lots can host typically smaller installations. Reilly cited the new panels that have been constructed at the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field parking lot. By placing systems in pre-developed areas, alternative energy could be provided without having to sacrifice space.

While the center is the first county building to be partially-powered by alternative energy, it won’t likely be the last. While there are other “green” options like wind power, Shockley was firmly in solar energy’s corner.

 “It’s the least intrusive,” he said, adding that solar was considerably more reliable than wind.

Though not many county properties have as much acreage as the center, Shockley explained that smaller sections of panels could be mounted on roofs.

In future construction projects especially, Shockley suggested that the commission consider paying a bit more to incorporate panels directly into the blueprints. While he admitted that there would be a noticeable upfront cost, he pointed out that solar systems will usually pay for themselves in less than a decade, depending on their size.