The Catholic University of America

Nov. 18, 2009

Solar-Energy Panels Added to CUA Rooftops

  The last solar panel is put in place on the roof of Flather Hall by Nathan Stumpff, left, and C.J. Colavito of Standard Solar.

Electricity is in the air at Catholic University as the university moves closer to becoming a consumer of solar energy.

Work on a campus solar-energy system began last week, when two cranes lifted 100 pallets of panels, ballast and racking to the roofs of Flather, Gibbons and Aquinas halls and the Raymond A. Dufour Athletic Center. After a break late last week to allow rain and wind from Hurricane Ida to pass, about 20 workmen are on rooftops this week installing solar panels and doing electrical work.

More than 250 solar panels now cover the rooftops of Flather and Gibbons halls. By early December, more than 830 additional solar panels will be installed on the rooftops of the other two buildings.

The project is on schedule and moving along without complications, said Brian Alexander, director of energy and utilities management at CUA.

Standard Solar of Gaithersburg, Md., is installing the 3-by-6-foot solar panels with the help of two subcontractors, John E. Kelly & Sons Electrical Construction Inc. of Upper Marlboro, Md., and Magco Inc. of Jessup, Md.

The solar-panel system, covering 30,233 total square feet when finished, will produce electricity by the end of the year.

The 294-killowat system, which is being installed at no cost to CUA, will be owned and operated by Washington Gas Energy Services (WGES). CUA signed a 20-year agreement with WGES to purchase electricity generated by the system at guaranteed prices.

The system will produce about 340,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year, or up to 20 percent of the electricity used by the four buildings. In terms of electricity produced, the panels comprise the largest solar-energy system in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

From Flather Hall, workmen moved on Nov. 17 to Gibbons Hall, where panels were installed in a day. Next, workmen will turn to Aquinas Hall and the Dufour Center.

Rows of solar panels are installed on Flather Hall's rooftop. After electrical wiring work was completed, the panels were lowered to a five-degree angle.

The almost 60-pound panels are held in place by racks, which are weighted. No equipment is nailed into the roofs. "It's just like putting together an erector set," said Alexander, adding that the ease of installation helps make the panels cost-effective.

The panels are positioned at a five-degree angle. At that angle, the 270-watt panels are not visible from the ground.

The work on the residence halls was done with minimal impact on the students who live there, said C.J. Colavito, commercial project manager from Standard Solar.

Interested students asked workmen questions about the project as they headed to and from the roof. Alexander was asked by a student living in Gibbons Hall about possible sunlight reflection off the panels. The panels, he was able to tell the student, "are designed so when light hits them, it's reflected internally. It's almost an anti-reflection, anti-glare design."

Once the panels are installed, the focus of the work will shift to the building's mechanical rooms, where electrical work is being done.

  Workmen position racks, which will hold solar panels in place on the roof of Aquinas Hall.

Kelly & Sons is doing the electrical setup and wiring that will allow direct current produced by the solar panels to be converted to alternating current, tying the solar-energy system to CUA's distribution system and adding a meter.

"Electricity is produced even on cloudy days, although in smaller amounts, because panels still collect energy from the sun," Alexander said. Winter weather isn't a deterrent to the production of energy, either. "Even a foot of snow lets some degree of light pass through," said Nathan Stumpff, Standard Solar's site superintendent.

Solar energy accounts for less than one percent of the energy used in the United States, according to Solar Energy Industries Association. But its use has accelerated with concerns about rising energy costs and the environmental impact of traditional energy sources.

With the solar-energy system, CUA will produce 332 fewer tons of carbon emissions annually, the equivalent of emissions created by consuming 34,220 gallons of gasoline.

CUA's rooftops will become a classroom next week, when students in the School of Engineering's Alternative Energy Track get a first-hand look at the new solar-energy system.