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A Spark for Solar Power

CPS Energy has teamed with a San Antonio company to install a roof full of solar panels capable of generating 200 kilowatts of electricity

San Antonio’s city-owned power provider has the sun in its eyes.  Looking into the future, CPS Energy has teamed with a San Antonio company to install a roof full of solar panels at a 67,000-square-foot former warehouse being rebuilt at the shuttered Pearl Brewery on the northern edge of downtown. The panels are capable of generating 200 kilowatts of electricity—equal to about one-fourth of the building’s total energy needs. It is the largest such project in the state.

With an operating life of more than 40 years, the project eventually will have a positive cash flow, according to Andrew McCalla, president of Meridian Energy systems. But while payback is important, this kind of project is not just about that, he said. It is about using advanced technology that also benefits the environment because its operation does not pollute the air or water.

The solar power unit is not cheap, but it will have many benefits, CPS Energy officials say. For one thing, it will be a valuable test bed and learning laboratory for solar power. For another, it will help educate architects, engineers and CPS Energy’s own municipal re- searchers as well as the general public about this emerging technology. And it just might provide the needed spark to get other businesses and public utilities to give solar energy a try, too.

The solar project is part of an ambitious effort by Silver Ventures, a San Antonio real-estate investment firm, to redevelop the 22-acre Pearl Brewery site into a multipurpose urban village on the San Antonio River. The company has been reworking historic structures at the old brewery and adding new construction to create an urban center that includes residential, commercial, retail, educational and entertainment facilities.            

Because Silver Ventures is emphasizing environmental stewardship in the redevelopment, solar energy and energy and water conservation are an important part of the effort.

“We think that the Pearl Brewery redevelopment is great for San Antonio, and we are excited to be a part of it,” said Valerie von Schramm, CPS Energy’s senior research manager for renewables, distributed energy and environment. “By participating in the solar project, CPS Energy is stepping out front in a big way for solar energy in the community while helping [the utility] to diversify our energy sources.”

CPS Energy will monitor the solar project closely, using state-of-the-art metering equipment to test its viability in a real-world setting. The utility also will share what it learns to assist public and private organizations that may be interested in installing their own solar electric systems, von Schramm said.

A public display will allow visitors to the Pearl site to see for themselves how the solar unit is operating, she said.

“We believe the project will be a useful educational tool for students and the public as well as a model for future commercial uses of solar energy,” von Schramm added. “We have received many inquiries about the solar project and expect the high level of interest to continue.”

The solar electric panels were installed in June, and tenants are scheduled to move into the building in August. It is known as the Full Goods Building, where beer once was temporarily stored before being shipped out. The building has been converted from a warehouse into a combination residential, office and retail facility. Besides the solar panels, the building has one of the most energy-efficient air-conditioning systems available. It also has a system to capture, store and recycle rainwater for landscape irrigation. 

Silver Ventures and CPS Energy have committed $1.35 million for the solar project: $950,000 from Silver Ventures and $400,000 from CPS Energy. CPS Energy is the nation’s largest municipally owned energy operator, providing electricity and natural gas service in and around the country’s seventh-largest city. It serves about 680,000 electric customers and 320,000 natural gas customers.

The Pearl Brewery operated from 1883 until 2001. Silver Ventures bought the property in 2002 and began converting buildings in the brewery complex to residential, office, meeting and training spaces. Silver Ventures and CPS Energy announced the joint solar project in June 2007.

Hooking up with CPS Energy for the solar project made sense because both organizations saw the potential benefits and both were willing to invest in it, said Darryl Byrd, development director for Silver Ventures.

“It has been a good partnership and a very positive thing for the community,” Byrd said.

The project uses solar cells, or photovoltaic cells, that convert sunlight directly into electricity. Solar cells have been around for decades and are used in everything from pocket calculators to orbiting satellites. They are not cheap, but costs have come down considerably as the technology has continued to improve. Also, increased demand has reduced production costs.

Solar cells have no moving parts. They are made of special materials that can generate a small amount of electrical current when sunlight strikes their surface. A large number of cells can be packaged to form a panel. An installation of a large number of panels is called a photovoltaic array.

The Pearl project is the largest solar-cell array in Texas, said Andrew McCalla, president of Meridian Energy Systems, an Austin-based firm that designed and installed the equipment.

“We are elated to be a part of this important project,” McCalla said. “We have projects around the state and nation, but this one is our shining star.”

With an operating life of more than 40 years, the project eventually will have a positive cash flow, according to McCalla. But while payback is important, this kind of project is not just about that, he said. It is about using advanced technology that also benefits the environment because its operation does not pollute the air or water.

Bill Sinkin, founder of a nonprofit solar advocacy group called Solar San Antonio, agrees.

Solar energy brings many benefits that are not always easy to calculate, according to Sinkin, whose group has been credited with helping Silver Ventures and CPS Energy get together on the project.

“We love that solar project,” Sinkin said. “The new Pearl Brewery owner [Silver Ventures] is a good environmentalist and is setting the tone here in San Antonio for building with the environment in mind. And, thanks to the owner and CPS Energy, we believe this solar project is also setting the tone that will encourage and promote the future use of solar energy.”

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Bill McCann is a retired communications manager and journalist who takes on freelance writing and editing assignments when the fish aren’t biting.