On roofs around the city, solar energy raises its profile | St. Louis Public Radio

On roofs around the city, solar energy raises its profile

Jun 21, 2012

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 21, 2012 - Driving past Civil Life Brewing Co. on a sunny afternoon, the flash of reflected sunlight can be distracting. A glance back at the year-old brewery in the Tower Grove South neighborhood of St. Louis reveals the light's source: an array of 106 solar panels blanketing the brewery's south-facing roof, shining in the sunlight.

"As a brewery, I think it's important to be conscious of your environmental impact," said Civil Life owner Jake Hafner. "For us, it was also just about good business strategy."

With 25 kilowatts worth of panels and high-grade insulation, Hafner said he is saving hundreds of dollars a month in energy costs by reducing what he pulls from the traditional power grid by 35-50 percent. He monitors his solar production online and earns credit with Ameren, the brewery's electric utility, when he produces more than he needs.

Civil Life, which installed the panels shortly before opening last September, is one of a growing number of St. Louis businesses looking to solar to supplement traditional energy sources as the cost of panels drops and traditional energy rises. Even though they must still hook up to a traditional power grid for down-times, solar users say the benefits now outweigh the costs.

Environmentally conscious businesses and homeowners have used solar panels for years, installing panels atop homes and warehouses and using the power of the sun to power their enterprises. But only in the wake of Missouri's Proposition C, a clean-energy initiative approved 2-to-1 by voters in 2008, has solar started the long ascent from novelty. The law requires that 15 percent of energy used and sold by investor-owned utilities like St. Louis-based Ameren to be renewable, 2 percent of which must come from solar.

Since the bill's passage and in spite of steep opposition from utilities, federal and utility-funded rebates have sharply reduced the once-prohibitive costs of solar, in some cases by 70 percent or more. 

"The great thing about solar is people come to it for different reasons," said Dane Glueck, the president of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association (MOSEIA). "Most people that choose solar often at least have some background in environmental interest, but now it is also an economic investment."

MOSEIA is the trade association for all things solar in Missouri. Glueck said the organization works to promote growth of the solar industry in Missouri through legislation, education initiatives and legal aid. 

Since Prop. C passed in 2008, the solar market in Missouri has grown 3,000 percent, according to MOSEIA Executive Director Heidi Schoen. She said that at the time of passage, Missouri had 100 kilowatts of solar energy capacity installed, a number that has swelled in four years to 3.5 megawatts. (Note a Kilowatt kW is 1,000 watts, a megawatt is 1 million watts.)

"I think it's less elusive than it used to be, but I think people have a lot of questions about what it looks like, what their options are," Schoen said. 

To that end, the organization sponsored a tour on Wednesday of commercial and residential properties around the St. Louis area that have invested in solar. Stopping at the Civil Life Brewing Co., J.E. Novack Construction Co., the Moonrise Hotel, Busch Stadium, Washateria, and a residential property in Creve Coeur, the tour was an educational and networking event. 

A different kind of laundromat

Since the early 1960s, the northwest corner of Nebraska and Shenandoah Avenues in Fox Park had been home to a traditional laundromat. Aside from the last few years, when the storefront was abandoned and fell into disrepair, a passerby could have looked in from the street and seen washers and dryers spinning away under florescent light. 

Machines will begin spinning again next week, only this time, much more efficiently. Washateria, the latest laundromat and dry cleaner to occupy the space, boasts the most efficient wash in town.

Though it may look more or less the same, Washateria is not the same old cleaners of the '60s. Its washers and dryers are the most energy efficient on the market, consuming 30-to-50 percent less energy. The lights are highly efficient florescent bulbs. And out of sight, on the roof, 98 solar panels produce enough energy to power most of the system.

All of which, co-owner Albert Anglin said, is good for business and good for the bottom line.

"The traditional equipment that's out there eats up a lot of resources in water, electric and gas," Anglin said, all of which drives up costs and prices. Although the high-efficiency equipment costs more, Anglin expects Washateria's energy savings will allow him to charge less than his competitors for a standard wash and about the same for a dry.

Anglin said that although he had always hoped Washateria would be an eco-friendly facility, it was not until he realized the economic benefit of solar and the generous rebates paid for under Prop. C that he fully considered panels as an option.

"I was pretty reluctant until I started looking at all the benefits. I'm green, but I also look at what things cost," Anglin said, adding, "It's hard to complain about cheaper."

Greening the birds on the bat

On game nights from April to October, the light standards illuminating Busch Stadium can be seen from miles away. For crowds of fans jammed into the stadium, the lights are taken for granted. But according to Marc Lopata, president of Microgrid Energy and the Cardinals energy manager, those lights — along with the scoreboards, kitchens, offices, clubhouses and just about everything else in the stadium — are energy drains, ripe to be handled more efficiently.

"It's really important to (the Cardinals) to have as little impact on the environment as possible," Lopata said.

But when he began working with the Cardinals four years ago, Lopata said the stadium was using 20 million kW hours a year. Scoreboards would be left on too long, light standard shining when they field was empty, and office lights shining well into the night. No thought had ever been given to running an environmentally efficient building.

Lopata's job was to change that, to green the home of the sea of red, and save some money along the way.

"The big issue here is how do you turn a stadium off after games and at the end of the year," Lopata said. 

By primarily cutting down on light usage, turning off scoreboards, installing a new steam plant, and making other usage adjustments, Lopata has been able to reduce the stadium's energy use to 16 million kW hours in just four years, a 20 percent difference. 

A relatively small piece of those savings come from 110 solar panels installed in three locations in the center field concourse in March. The panels account for 38,000 kW hours a year. Though the panels only represent about 1 percent of the energy savings at Busch so far, Lopata said they have a high profile.

"Solar panels are sexy; new steam plants just aren't," Lopata said.

Solar rising

Since opening in 2009, the Moonrise Hotel has towered over the Delmar Loop, its signature moon spinning day and night atop the roof. In a celestial twist of logic, the hotel's moon is powered by the sun. When the sun is shining, the moon and the rooftop bar in its shadow rely on 20 double-sided solar panels draped as an awning over the bar.

The panels were installed in May and produce about 3.9 kW of energy for the rooftop; they also provided much needed shade. According to Steve O'Rourke of Microgrid Energy who installed the panels, the solar awning is the first of its kind in St. Louis. 

"The hotel itself is very green," Moonrise's food and beverage manager Catherine Martin said. It participates in soap recycling programs, is home to one of St. Louis' first electric car charging station, and has long wanted to incorporate solar energy into its energy portfolio. The hotel's owner Joe Edwards is committed to running environmentally responsible businesses, Martine said, so when the cost of solar dropped enough, the panels went up.

According to O'Rourke, with rebates and tax incentives, the solar awning actually ended up being less expensive than a traditional fabric awning and saving money on energy costs.

Nick Fandos is a Beacon intern.