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Solar Power Showcase

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Association recently built a high-profile solar power project on the roof of their union hall in San Jose, which is proving to be a good example of the solar insta

By Paul MacDonald

When you are flying in to the San Jose Airport in northern California, you can easily spot one particular roof-mounted solar project, and there is no doubt who's involved—you can simply tell by the solar panels spelling out the letters IBEW.

Over the last year, the local electrical union serving California's Santa Clara County has undertaken the development of a 200-kW commercial solar array and net zero building retrofit on their union hall in San Jose. The project, completed by Local Union 332 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), will allow the union hall to generate all of its energy with solar power.

It is also raising the profile of the two organizations by providing a very effective example of the solar installation skills of both IBEW and NECA members.

The project, created using Aurora Solar Inc. solar design software, will save the local union over $140,000 per year in utility bills and cut carbon emissions.

With renewable energy technologies like solar PV and energy storage becoming highly sought skills for electrical workers, managing the solar project from design to installation has allowed IBEW and NECA to showcase their talents to prospective clients in a high-profile way.

Innovation isn't new to Local 332; it is one of the largest IBEW union locals in Northern California and is known for its leadership in implementing cutting-edge technologies. Its union hall previously hosted the first commercial-scale solar array in San Jose. Significantly, it was the largest commercial solar array west of the Mississippi when it was installed in 2001. This was during the height of the electricity crisis in California when the state experienced several large-scale blackouts. Because the building also had a backup battery system that enabled it to keep running during the blackouts, it gained notoriety in the local community.

 
Christopher Smith, building developer and alternative energy engineer at NECA and IBEW, on the roof, with the union's solar project. 
  

In the nearly two decades since the historic installation, the early modules had degraded, and the union was interested in replacing them. While they could have simply replaced the 30-kW system, they had a vision to make the project much grander. Local 332 Business Manager Gerald Pfeiffer saw this as an opportunity for the union to demonstrate its expertise in renewable energy technologies through a larger and more complex project.

Pacific Ridge Electric, a member company of NECA, carried out the project. Ken Spears, vice president of Pacific Ridge Electric, says the project was a good fit for the company, as it's very willing to take on new challenges, such as solar power projects.

He added that the project also appealed to them for another reason—they were the prime contractor, which allows them to deal directly with the client.

Spears said that a number of attributes need to be in place for a successful solar project. It has to be mechanically feasible, with the building in reasonably good shape, and it has to be practical from an economics perspective. "Those are the kind of questions we try to get resolved upfront. That way, we know whether we can deliver a solar power project that is going to be desirable for our customer because, really, that's what it's all about."

 
 Pacific Ridge Electric, a member company of NECA, carried out the solar project. It opted to go with a bolt-on racking system rather than a ballasted system for the project, with racking from IronRidge, located in nearby Hayward, California.
  

Spears noted that they were starting with a clean slate with the IBEW solar project.

In advance of starting work, they were able to find the original structural engineers for the building. "They took a look and said, no problem, we could put in exactly what was planned. They essentially blessed it for the solar installation."

He explained that Pacific Ridge opted to go with a bolt-on racking system, rather than a ballasted system for the project.

"We get shakers here in California, and when things start to wiggle, the last thing you want is a lot of weight on top of a building, even a single-story building, so we chose to go with a bolted-on structure." They went with racking from IronRidge, which is located in nearby Hayward. They used Seraphim solar panels on the project. Seraphim USA, which is based in Houston, has manufacturing operations in Jackson, Mississippi.

 
Aurora Solar Inc. was used to design the installation and forecast the energy production of different design configurations on the project. It streamlined the process of creating a variety of potential designs and made it easy to assess the energy production and bill savings benefits of each. 
  

A new roof was installed as part of the overall project. "So we put our supports on, and then the roofers came in right after us and put down their system," explained Spears. "As soon as they were done, we were right back in there, putting down our racks and panels."

Aurora Solar Inc.'s software played an important role in facilitating the project, as did technical and financing assistance from NECA's Energy Conservation and Performance (ECAP) platform. Aurora was used to design the installation and forecast the energy production of different design configurations. Aurora streamlined the process of creating a variety of potential designs and made it easy to assess the energy production and bill savings benefits of each.

ECAP, working alongside Pacific Ridge Electric, provided services such as energy auditing, economic modeling, and project management support, and connected the project with $3.2 million in financing—covering the full upfront cost of the building retrofit. The ECAP program's financial and technical services are designed to make it easy for any member electrical contractor to implement a renewable energy project.

Spears noted that the Aurora folks and system were also very helpful when it came to the details of the project, such as spelling out the IBEW in solar panels. "That was a bit difficult, but Aurora was able to help us out with that."

The project has only just been completed, but already there are indications that it is generating business benefits for IBEW and NECA stakeholders—and for Pacific Ridge Electric. Spears says they have already received numerous inquiries from businesses interested in adding commercial solar arrays to their facilities after seeing the work at the IBEW Hall. And with multiple years before California's net zero buildings requirements take effect, the project has created an avenue for NECA and IBEW to build a strong portfolio of these types of projects in the coming years in order to be well prepared for growing demand in this area.

"There's lots of opportunity on the commercial side for this type of projects," says Spears. "When you fly in to San Jose, you can see a lot of roofs that are ripe for solar—one, two, three-story buildings with flat roofs that would be relatively easy to work on."

And Spears and his workers would be keen to take on these additional solar projects. He added that they took great satisfaction in doing the IBEW project. "We're very proud of it."

 


May/June 2018