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Oregon Y taps into solar power

A solar array installed at a YMCA in Oregon is already saving money for the nonprofit organization-and it was installed by YMCA member Peter Greenberg of Energy Wise Services, who has been involved with numerous solar power systems around the world.

By Diane Mettler

The YMCA solar project in Albany, Oregon, was a feel-good project from start to finish.

In May, Mid-Willamette Family YMCA in Albany, about 70 miles south of Portland, installed a 134-kilowatt solar array on their building's two rooftops. It was funded in part by a $125,000 grant from Pacific Power's Blue Sky program, and the YMCA now expects to lower their large electric bill by more than 10 percent per year.

Peter Greenberg, owner of Energy Wise Services, is a member of the Albany YMCA, and he also presented the idea, procured the grant, and installed the array.

"I've been in solar for 10 years, and I like the Y," says Greenberg, who has assembled several arrays for nonprofits throughout Oregon. "I got the YMCA a grant for a good chunk of the cost. Then there were some utility and other incentives, and I'm carrying them for a couple years. I did the same thing with my Boys and Girls Club in town."

The project took a surprisingly short amount of time to install. First off, the roof array and all the conduit were external, so the project didn't interfere with the normal day-to-day operation of the facility.

"We had to have the YMCA shut down the power for a few hours," says Greenberg, "But with COVID, unfortunately, it wasn't that big of a deal to do a shutdown on a Saturday.

"The solar modules go up fast," he added. "We installed the modules and racking in four days with two people. Wiring took about two weeks more."

Greenberg has noticed over the years that project times have gotten faster from start to finish. "The racking is smarter, and inverters are smaller, lighter, and more powerful. The solar panels are higher wattage, so you're putting up less of them. When we did the Boys and Girls Club project on two flat-roofed buildings, in the first building, we put up 100 kilowatts with 230-watt modules, and then the second building—with almost the same number of panels—was 160 kilowatts.

It's amazing just how fast everything in solar has progressed, from better racking to smaller, more cost-effective inverters."

On the YMCA project, Greenberg used IronRidge racking for the flat roofs. He used two Chint Power Systems America (CPS) 60-kilowatt inverters, which have Tigo Energy's integrated rapid shutdown wire boxes. He also used 378 AstroHalo modules, from CPS sister company Astro Energy.


Greenberg chose a Flex Gateway communication card with a CPS performance package, allowing the customer or contractor to monitor the project. The CPS 60 kW SCA Series Grid-tied PV Inverters, with three MPPTs (maximum power point trackers) with up to five strings each, gave the YMCA project flexibility to put separate roof segments on separate MPPTs according to module orientation, without the need to add power optimizers behind each module.

Greenberg has been working with CPS for a number of years because he knows Chint stands behind their products, and they both enjoy a great working relationship.

"Peter Greenberg with Energy Wise is actually one of our first customers," says Andrea Kacmarcik, CPS regional sales manager. "One of his first projects with CPS took place about six or seven years ago. What's great about Peter is he's always willing to do these pilot projects with us. So in a way he's a CPS mascot—ready to accept every challenge and represent CPS' new products. We really love working with him."

Perhaps Greenberg's willingness to try new things is because his father was an inventor, and Greenberg grew up in that problem-solving environment. Or perhaps it's because the field of solar energy is constantly fine-tuning its components, and Greenberg has no fear of trying new equipment—after much research and some trepidation.

"I think we've used maybe 18 products where we were the first customer either in the world or in Oregon, but mostly just the first customer," says Greenberg. "Chint has a new 25-kilowatt 208-volt inverter, and we were their first customer in the world to use it. We're using that with the Flex Gateway as well. The rate of change in the solar industry is one of the things that keeps it interesting."

Having installed more than 10 years' worth of systems, Greenberg has only had to re-work one because the company, tenK Solar, wound down operations. Even that project created new opportunities.

"tenK had a very unique solar system, and you couldn't replace any of the parts, and we were just starting to get some issues. Luckily, we were getting enough money per kilowatt hour under our program that it made sense to replace it very prematurely.

 The Albany, Oregon YMCA solar project took a surprisingly short amount of time to install. The roof array and all the conduit were external, so the project didn't interfere with the normal day-to-day operation of the facility.

"We replaced it with the GameChange solar tracker. This again was their first model of its kind. In addition, we used a very interesting product made by Terra Pave. It came out of the University of Texas. It's a soil additive, a type of polymer, and it's a pretty involved process but it basically turned soil into limestone—turns it hard as concrete.

"Then there's a white coating that goes on top to reflect light from underneath the modules. We used these double-sided bifacial modules. A few years ago we installed GameChange Solar's first single-axis tracker (one up in portrait) and in midstream modified it to two modules in landscape with what was then one of the largest installs of bifacial modules from Silfab." Energy Wise owns about six megawatts of power.

"We have quite a few hundred-kilowatt systems or so that we've put in," says Greenberg. "We just finished a 100-kilowatt on a nonprofit daycare, and we're just starting on a 110-kilowatt on a building for the county."

For the 100-kilowatt project, Energy Wise used the 25-kilowatt 208-volt Chint inverters with the FLEX Gateway, and as mentioned, were the first to install the 25-kilowatt inverters. Energy Wise also used NEP rapid shut off. "NEP is new to the U.S. scene," adds Greenberg. "They've been around overseas, but they're just getting a foothold in the U.S."

Energy Wise begins its process by receiving the building plans from its structural engineer and designing a system according to whether a roof is flat or sloping.

"With the sloped roof, we're attaching maybe two-and-a-half pounds a square foot to the roof, so it's almost never a big deal," explains Greenberg. "With a flat roof, you first need to find out how much extra weight it can take, and then you go to the racking people with your requirements, and they'll design the ideal system for you." For the installer, that ideal system is a combination of concrete blocking and attachments that attach to the type of roof. So the number of attachments and amount of blocking depend on how much weight the roof can hold.

The YMCA solar project is made up of a 134-kilowatt solar array on their building's two rooftops. It was funded in part by a $125,000 grant from Pacific Power's Blue Sky program, and the YMCA now expects to lower their large electric bill by more than 10 percent per year. 

There are certain types of roofs Energy Wise prefers, but Greenberg is up for a challenge and has installed several kinds of systems. "We've used fixed systems that don't move, we've done systems on the ground," he says, "and three years ago, we did our first system that tracked the sun, putting in our first tracker from GameChange Solar. We bought two megawatts. Three years later, they're up to about 6,000 or 7,000 megawatts and are one of the bigger tracker companies in the world."

When it comes to installing arrays, Greenberg does it all, including residential, but he prefers projects within the 100 to 200 kilowatt range. "It's easier to do bigger projects. Larger projects justify larger equipment, which makes the job go faster, rather than humping up panels to the roof. Plus the paperwork is pretty much the same whether you're doing a five-kilowatt project or 100 kilowatts. The inverters are cheaper when you're doing 480 volts rather than 120 volts. It could be six cents a watt rather than 20 cents a watt."

Greenberg has also had the chance to install battery systems. "I've volunteered for Twende Solar and did a solar system in a remote school in Haiti last year that was an hour-and-a-half up a mountain," he says. "They would have never gotten electricity, and now 450 kids have electricity and batteries and lights and fans. I did the same type of thing in remote villages in both Peru and Nicaragua." As soon as travel is possible again, Greenberg will be heading to Nepal with GRID Alternatives to light up a remote medical clinic.

"My friend, Keven Keene, has a nonprofit to help kids at the school get Kindles and other equipment so they can do homework as they have no electricity in their homes," adds Greenberg. He invites anyone interested to check out the work at https://britenhaiti.org.

"Solar's got a life of its own," summarizes Greenberg. "Whether you're Republican or Democrat, conservative or whatever, pretty much everybody wants to cut their utility bill. It's one thing that both sides can agree on.

"In fact, the Tea Party got together with the Sierra Club environmentalists to support solar, calling it the Green Tea Movement. So among the red and blue states, solar is very evenly divided. It's definitely become more cost-effective."

Greenberg predicts that solar, along with all other renewable energies, is just going to expand. "It not only makes much more sense now, but we have to do it. We only have one planet. We have to take care of it. We've been abusing it for too long."