Billed as the largest installation of solar-thermal heating-and-cooling technology in the world, a project is underway to install 640 solar panels atop the roof of the Fletcher Business Park to heat water and heat and cool the sprawling facility.
The project will include a 27,000-gallon water tank, 2.5 miles of steel piping and tubing, and the solar panels, which will be erected on the 900,000 square foot facility’s huge roof. Once home to Steelcase, an office-furniture manufacturer, the Fletcher Business Park is now home to 20 businesses and 250 employees. The vast array is expected to produce 1.5 megawatts of power.
The project coincides with the announcement Thursday that Appalachian Energy, a homegrown business specializing in solar projects, has been acquired by Vanir Energy, a subsidiary of the Vanir Group of Companies, a large national construction firm. The company also performs real estate development and construction management work. The new company has hired 58 contract workers to complete the installation, which has been verified as the world’s largest by the International Energy Agency.
Vanir Energy’s entry into North Carolina will trigger a total of $14 million in solar-thermal projects across the state in 2009 alone, according to a company press release. The company plans to own and operate the systems it installs, enabling customers to take advantage of the technology without having to make a capital expenditure.
Steve Hunter, Vanir’s Sacramento, Calif.-based chief operating officer, said his company’s ability to finance projects at no up-front capital cost means, “We can fix the cost of energy for a customer for the next 20 years,” he says — a highly attractive proposition for everything from prisons and hospitals to schools and office buildings.
Scott Clark, the CEO of Appalachian Energy and now executive vice president of Vanir Energy, said the new company advances his goal of helping to create local jobs while moving solar projects into the mainstream of energy production.
The project is the latest in a wave of big solar thermal and solar photovoltaic installations either planned or completed in Western North Carolina in recent months. A number of factors have contributed to shifting solar energy from what many have considered an experimental, fringe phenomenon to a more mainstream energy source. A 2007 state law is pushing utilities in North Carolina to start deriving a specified percentage of their demand through renewable sources or increased energy efficiency. Substantial state and federal tax credits also loom large in the equation. Meanwhile, technological advances, rising energy costs (Progress Energy just announced a 10 percent rate hike effective Dec. 1), widespread concern about global warming and creative marketing strategies have all helped illuminate the potential of sun power.
For more on this story, see Wednesday’s Mountain Xpress.
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor