largest solar power project, on the roof of the Salt Palace Convention
Center, involved a whole lot of people and hard work to get the
financing, but it's now generating a lot of power—and pride.
To borrow a phrase, sometimes it takes a village to build a solar power
That certainly seems to be the case with the 1.65 MW solar project on
the roof of the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt
Lake City, Utah. Not only is it the largest solar project in Utah, it
took a whole lot of folks and organizations to get it built.
"This was a monumental achievement by all parties involved," said Jim
Welch, CEO of Bella Energy, which was the Engineering, Procurement and
Construction (EPC) contractor on the Salt Palace Convention Center
project. Welch termed the project "a wonderful accomplishment resulting
from the hard work of countless people."
Andy Blakeslee, Bella Energy's project manager, recalls taking a group
of people from nonprofit organizations (who had supported legislative
changes to help get the project built) up to the roof of the convention
center to see the finished solar project. "One person almost broke down
in tears when she saw the solar panels. She had been working on it for
something like six years," he says.
Essentially, a lot of people power went into the project that produces
a lot of solar power.
The 6,006 Suntech solar modules on the roof of the Salt Palace Center
are expected to produce an estimated 2.3 million kilowatt hours of
electricity in the first year of operation, covering approximately 17
percent of the Salt Palace's annual electrical use.
It is the largest solar project on Rocky Mountain Power's entire
electrical grid. And at 3.85 acres, it has a lot of roof to cover. The
convention center boasts 515,000 square feet of exhibit space, 66
meeting rooms, and 164,000 square feet of meeting space including a
45,000-square-foot grand ballroom. The Salt Palace served as the
Olympic Media Center during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The project goes a long way toward accomplishing County Mayor Peter
Corroon's goal of installing 10 MW of solar power on Salt Lake
County-owned facilities. Nine county facilities currently use solar
power to help meet their electrical needs, but the Salt Palace project
alone, which is the size of five football fields, nearly doubles the
solar power generated in Utah.
Solar power could help the city deal with sometimes severe air quality
issues. During the winter, Salt Lake City has temperature inversions
that trap smog and cause health problems. While some of this smog is
emitted from cars, it is also generated by coal powered plants in the
region. Any move toward emission-free power generation is seen as
positive by area residents.
Salt Lake County partnered with Bella Energy to build the system and
CarbonFree Technology to own, operate, and maintain the system,
providing power to the county at a fixed rate.
An American solar project developer, CarbonFree Technology also
developed the system and arranged and structured the financing of the
project, which involved a number of parties and incentives. The Salt
Palace project benefits from the use of New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC),
Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds, federal Section 1603 cash grants,
and other federal grants. Financial partners included JP Morgan Chase
and National Development Council, with Zions Bank Public Finance acting
as a financial consultant.
"This project is one of a very small number of solar projects ever to
use NMTCs," said David Oxtoby, CEO of CarbonFree Technology. "As a
result, the Salt Palace is able to buy the energy generated by the
system at a low price competitive with grid electricity.
With the completion of the
solar power project, the Salt Palace Convention Center is a local
showcase for renewable energy and is marketing itself as one of the
more sustainable convention centers in the U.S.
"While the transaction was more complex than the standard solar
financing," Oxtoby added, "all parties were committed to making the
project a success."
"Financing the Salt Palace project required a lot of sweat equity and
14 months of hard work to develop a funding package that would satisfy
the needs of each party," said Andrew McKenna, executive vice-president
of Bella Energy. "I'm thrilled to finally see all that hard work
capturing the power of the sun."
Andy Blakeslee, Bella Energy's project superintendent, found working on
the project fulfilling. "There were so many people involved who made it
happen—it's been the most rewarding project I've worked on," he
It's also the largest project that Bella Energy has taken on. "It's
been a major project for us," says Blakeslee.
Bella Energy started life in 1982 as Remote Power Inc, one of
Colorado's and the nation's very first companies to sell and install
solar electric systems. Founded by Jim Welch, the company focused on
residential solar, before moving into commercial solar. These days, the
company specializes in commercial projects, from 100 kilowatts up to 2
"We've done a variety of properties and systems," says Blakeslee.
"We've done roof mounts and ground mounts on schools, military bases,
commercial, and municipal buildings."
The Salt Palace—Bella Energy's first convention center
project—was unique in a few respects, says Blakeslee.
"It was different, both in scope and the client. It's a big roof and in
installing the solar panels, we couldn't impede the convention center's
operations. In fact, they had their biggest show come in while the
project was under construction, which created some complexity in the
While planning is key to the successful construction of any solar
installation, this was even more true with the Salt Palace project.
"We were able to leverage our past experience and do a good job of
planning the construction, so it actually went pretty smoothly," says
Blakeslee. "We had a good sense of what needed to happen in loading
materials to the roof—we spent a month-and-a-half just getting
materials up there.
"We were familiar with putting solar power systems on big flat roofs,
so the planning was pretty similar to what we were used to—it
just took longer and involved more manpower," he added.
The trade shows and events held at the Salt Palace can involve delivery
of massive amounts of materials. Bella Energy and its subcontractors
worked closely with the Salt Palace staff and arranged their material
deliveries around the schedule of a number of events.
They were able to utilize a strip of land alongside the convention
center's loading dock, and often the loading dock itself, depending on
what was happening with shows and events. "There were days when they
would have shows going on and there were limitations on where and when
we could load from. The loading dock could get busy."
The 6,006 Suntech solar modules on the roof
of the Salt Palace Convention Center are expected to produce an
estimated 2.3 million kilowatt hours of electricity in the first year
of operation, covering approximately 17 percent of the Salt Palace's
annual electrical use.
Having trucks with large loads come and go is pretty second nature to
the convention center. "It really wasn't an issue. The facility is set
up for handling lots of trucks, with a nice loading dock and plenty of
space for our trucks and the crane."
The biggest challenge, Blakeslee says, was that materials could not be
staged on the ground. "Every time a truck came in, all that material
would have to go on the roof by the end of the day." They did three
trucks a day, staggering them.
That represents one heck of a lot of materials.
"We're talking about a lot of solar panels, racking, and materials,"
says Blakeslee. There were 18 53-foot long semi-trucks of solar panels
alone. "It was getting a lot of panels up on the roof, and then once
they were up there, it was getting the panels to where they needed to
be on the roof and also out of our way, so we could construct the
The materials were lifted by crane to the 50-foot-high roof. From
there, they were transported to where they would be installed on the
That's where Utah-based subcontractor Clark's Quality Roofing got
Clark's craned an ATV and a trailer equipped with an electric winch to
the top of the roof. Pallets of panels were transported wherever needed
on the roof with the system. The trailer transported one pallet at a
time; forks were inserted under the pallet so it could be lifted on and
off the trailer with the electric winch.
"They also adjusted the number of pneumatic tires on the cart according
to the loads that were being moved," says Blakeslee. "We had to ensure
that we weren't exceeding the load capacity of the roof. We had
structural engineers providing us with a materials staging plan, so we
didn't exceed the roof's load limits in moving and staging materials."
Clark's Quality Roofing had installed a new Carlisle Thermoplastic
polyolefin (TPO) roof on the Salt Palace the year before, so they were
also up to speed on the specs of the roof, which had several levels,
due to the different heights of the halls in the convention center.
"Loading the different levels posed a challenge, but it also nicely
broke the project into sections," explained Blakeslee.
The roof is also broken up by parapet walls with expansion joints.
To install the racking, solar panels, and associated electrical, Bella
Energy and subcontractors Clark's Quality Roofing and Rydalch Electric
approached the project in sections. "We did it more area by area,
rather than in phases—it was more of a natural progression."
Nine Salt Lake County
facilities currently use solar power to help meet their electrical
needs, but the Salt Palace project alone—which is the size of
five football fields—nearly doubles the amount of solar power
generated in Utah.
As the EPC contractor on the project, Bella Energy selected the
materials. "We chose a top tier type panel that we knew would perform
for a long period of time." They opted for Suntech 275W panels that are
manufactured in Arizona and are Buy American Act-compliant. All of the
major components had to be made in the U.S. because of the tax credits
involved in the financing. Blakeslee noted that they had used Suntech
panels on previous projects and were happy with their performance.
Unirac supplied its ISYS racking for the project. Blakeslee said that
this was the first time they had used the ISYS racking, so there was a
bit of a learning curve. "There were engineering tolerances that we
needed to follow, so we did a mockup in one section of the roof to make
sure we were putting it in correctly, before we let Clark's go at it
with all their resources."
The ISYS system is self ballasted. There were roof penetrations, but
Blakeslee explained that these were for seismic engineering purposes.
"We've used a lot of ballasted systems before, but they usually
involved putting down concrete blocks to weigh the systems down. This
was the first time we used a self-ballasted system that did not require
additional ballast, which was really nice. The racking itself is
secured to the roof with its own weight." He noted an important
component of the system is a wind dam on the back of the racking, which
creates a downward force on the racking.
Salt Lake City gets some pretty good wind, so the wind speed design
criteria for Salt Lake County and the Salt Palace was 90 MPH.
Two Solectria SGI 500 kW inverters and a Solectria SGI 300 kW inverter
were used on the project. There are two separate points of
interconnection with the grid. One of the 500 kW inverters feeds a
utility-owned vault on the southern end of the building and the other
500 kW and 300 kW inverters feed a separate vault on the north
In terms of a timeline, construction started in mid-December and was
finished the first week of May. They were fortunate enough to have good
weather almost all the way through. "We got really lucky, it was one of
the driest years on record," said Blakeslee. "The weather was a
variable that we were worried about going into the project, so it was a
pleasant surprise. We had a few days of snow, but we worked through
those days, doing some snow removal on the roof to keep the project
The project was finished on schedule, despite a bit of a slower start,
with the racking mockup. "It was a bit slower at the beginning, because
we were figuring out the new racking, but once we determined the
quality was there and the process was good, Clark's put more guys into
it and they just worked their way steadily through it."
Blakeslee said planning was clearly one of the keys to the success of
the project, and of course it was important to have the right
components to build the project.
But it also came down to the people.
"I'd say that the collaboration of all the parties and partners
involved was also what made it successful. When we had the ribbon
cutting ceremony, there were 40 people in the room who were involved in
the project—and they all had an important role in making it
The project had its share of stop-and-goes, before construction finally
moved ahead, in late 2011. Blakeslee said one of the partners likened
the project's supporters to Roomba vacuum cleaners, due to the hurdles
they had to overcome. "When they hit a wall, they could have quit, but
they just carried on and went in a different direction."
With the completion of the project, in addition to being a local
showcase for renewable energy, the convention center is now marketing
itself as one of the more sustainable convention centers in the U.S.