Nation’s Largest Solar Plant Provides Ray of Hope for Alternative Power

By Matt Baker

It seems so simple. Coal and oil are dirty, finite resources while sunlight is clean and ubiquitous. So why haven’t we made the change? There are many reasons but the most looming is money. It still costs two to three times as much to produce one kilowatt hour of solar power compared to conventional means. The best way for alternative energy to achieve parity with fossil fuels is expanded production. Increase the scale and prices will decrease.

This past July, Exelon Corporation did just that by opening the nation’s largest solar installation. Tens of thousands of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels now fill forty-one acres of a former industrial brownfield in the city’s West Pullman neighborhood.

(L-R) Exelon Senior Vice President Tom O’Neill, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago Department of Environment Commissioner Suzanne Malec-McKenna, Exelon Chairman and CEO John Rowe and 34th Ward Alderman Carrie Austin.

Exelon announced their plan for the project in April of last year. It had many of the characteristics of a hypothetical concept or, at best, a vanity project. But the groundbreaking in the summer of 2009 proved that the energy company was sincere in their plans; one year and $60 million later—just fifteen months after publicly announcing the solar plant—final site work was completed and Exelon City Solar was officially dedicated.

Though relatively quick, this wasn’t an easy transformation for the former brownfield. Years of fly dumping was only the most visible sign of abuse on the property, as the site was heavily polluted by industrial usage in prior years. Laying fallow for three decades wasn’t enough to rid the soil of the toxic cocktail left behind by former tenants; only after cleaning the site would it be ready for installation.

And the installation is big. The more than 32,000 solar panels designed, manufactured and erected by San Jose-based SunPower Corporation are arranged on single-axis platforms that allow them to follow the sun for maximum solar gain. SunPower claims that the sun tracking system increases efficiency by up to 25% compared to a static array.

The solar plant is expected to produce more than 14,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year. This is enough to meet the annual energy requirements of up to 1,500 homes. As the plant operates with zero carbon emissions, it also displaces approximately 31.2 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year—the equivalent of 2,500 automobiles.

Exelon refers to the plant on West 120th Street as a “demonstration facility.” Though currently the largest in the nation, at 10 MW of capacity, this is a very slim component in Exelon’s, or the state’s, energy portfolio. Exelon runs several fossil fuel plants around the country, and is the nation’s largest operator of nuclear power. All of its holdings in Illinois, aside from the new West Pullman PV plant, are nuclear.

The company plans to tweak and test the plant during its daily operations in the hope that future PV plants can be constructed with even better efficiencies. “We look forward to learning lessons on how this operates,” Exelon spokesman Paul Elsberg said. “This is really our first foray into solar power.”

The plant operators won’t be the only ones learning from the project. The site is open to field trips for area schools and SunPower has pledged to cooperate with local community colleges to create hands-on training programs and apprenticeships in the field of solar power. The panel manufacturer will also install several 2 kW solar systems atop local non-profit and low-income housing facilities.

When possible, materials were sourced not just from the Chicago area, but from the nearby south side. For example, all of the over 7,000 steel piers holding up the array were obtained from Fabricating & Welding Corp., located one mile away from the solar plant

Approximately 200 hundred construction jobs were created by this project, and seven full-time staffers keep it running. The land, which Exelon has leased long-term from the city, was a blight but now features sustainable landscaping and just as importantly, brings in tax dollars.

Exelon made a commitment to reduce the equivalent of their 2001 carbon footprint, or 15 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, by 2020. The utility recently announced plans to purchase John Deere Renewables, the wind power business of Moline-based Deere & Co. The $860 million deal will add 735 MW to Exelon’s nationwide clean energy portfolio of about 1,000 MW. “We expect to see increasing demand for clean, efficient wind power at a national level and in the 29 states that already have a renewable energy standard,” Exelon Chief Executive John Rowe said.

Statewide, there are a handful of hydroelectric, wind and solar power generating plants, but as of 2008, these renewable plants amounted to less than 1% of the state’s power generation. Governor Pat Quinn signed a law last month requiring utilities to buy or produce 0.5% of solar power by June 2012; this mandate will double each year until reaching 6% in 2015. The process will be far from simple, but through legislation, market pressure and corporate commitments, power generation in Illinois is getting cleaner.

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