Museum Goes Solar to Enlighten Patrons

A partnership of regional funders has financed 280 solar panels for the roof of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, the first of the city’s nine major museums to attempt to harness solar power.

The effort to encourage alternative energy use is from the Chicago Department of Environment, a solar firm called Spire Solar Chicago and the local utility, Commonwealth Edison, (ComEd).

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA) is paying 60 percent of the museum’s $327,000 installation fees and the remainder of the project is evenly divided between ComEd and the city of Chicago.

"The DCCA grant is one of the most progressive programs for photovoltaic systems," said Kent Whitfield, senior project manager of Spire Solar Chicago, a division of Spire Corporation, a photovoltaic company based in Bedford, Mass. "The state compensates up to 60 percent of the cost to install the system, or rebates $6 per watt to install."

Photovoltaic systems put out direct current voltage (DC); like a battery, which then turns into alternating current (AC) through inverters. Using this system, the Nature Museum estimates it can generate 40,000 kilowatts per year to help out on the two million kilowatts needed.

"That would be a 2 percent savings," said Christopher Dunn, technical operations manager for the museum. "The 2 percent is an average taken over the entire year although during the winter the figure may drop to around 1 percent."

To understand the kilowatt, picture a 100-watt light bulb burning for 10 hours. The unit of energy produced gets you one kilowatt. An exhibit gallery that uses 50-to-120-watt lamp fixtures to light the area requires 6,000 watts of power each hour just to function.

"If we have a full bright sunlight day striking the solar array on the roof, we generate 30,000 watts of electricity in one hour," Dunn said. "We could power the lights in that gallery for five hours just by that hour."

Of course, the generated electricity only comes when sunlight hits the main grid, and energy can’t be stored. Spire’s computer data analyzed weather patterns of sunrise and sunset to evaluate how much sunlight could generate electricity over the year. Chicago actually gets almost 85 percent of the solar energy as Miami, according to Spire.

The solar cells are two feet by two feet embedded in a sheet of tempered glass and are mounted on a piece of Styrofoam. They are easily attached by a tongue and groove compared to the old system that required mounted racks and frames. In the past, installers had to drill through the roof.

"This just lays on the roof three to four inches high," Dunn said. "One of the men who worked on a previous system was getting ready to solder with an iron, but it’s not needed with the new system."

Spire supplies the inverters that channel the power into traditional transformers. "We provided nothing but the existing electrical panel," Dunn said. "We just plugged in the wires."

Overall costs for solar power have dropped 500 percent during the past decade, according to Spire’s Whitfield. Costs depend on size but generally are $10 an installed watt. Whitfield also indicated that the photovoltaic systems are intended to perform for 30 years.

The Illinois grant prompting solar energy comes in a deregulated marketplace where energy companies diversify while actually encouraging alternative green products, explained William Abolt, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Environment.

Part of the new drive also emerges as the city attracts the new business of Spire to open up a Chicago operation last August. Chicago sought out Spire as an alternative.

"There wasn’t interest by utilities in doing anything other than working nuclear plants or coal," Abolt said. "With deregulation, more customers want green power and reliable energy alternatives."

"We’re trying to increase the demand for solar power by placing it in high profile places like the museums," Abolt said. The city started by installing solar systems in a series of schools along with five new state-of-the-art environmentally friendly homes.

At the end of the year, should the percent come out lower than the anticipated 2 percent savings, the result won’t mean a failure, he said. "You have to find a baseline of how much the solar can help," Abolt said. "We’re confident the systems will work well, but some museums are older buildings and may require more energy."

Saving some money remains only part of the goal, according to Abolt. "We want to look at the educational value – are people getting excited about it?" For example, a kiosk in one school using solar energy allows children to track power being generated while a club acts as a solar company to calculate how much money is saved.

The solar alternative fits right in with the museum’s educational mission, according to Dunn. "We’re going to have a raised walkway where people can see the solar array on the roof," he said. "We’re also planning to build a kiosk exhibit to inform the public about the energy."

The generated energy offsets 42 tons of carbon dioxide generated by power plants each year. "That’s like driving an average car 105,000 miles," Dunn said. "We’re going to help reduce those greenhouse gases by that figure."


Tom Pope is a New York City-based journalist who writes about management issues.