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solar panels and Campanile One side of the photovoltaic array installed on the new roof of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union at UC Berkeley. (BAP photos)

MLK Student Union gets a charge from student-funded solar power system

– Students are often accused of thinking like short-timers - after all, they typically only spend four (or five, or six) years at UC Berkeley, which supposedly makes them unwilling to pay for things whose benefits they will never see. But for two years running, UC Berkeley's Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) and Graduate Assembly (GA) have voted almost unanimously to allocate sizable chunks of their budgets - 8.5 percent and roughly 10 percent, respectively - to a project that won't begin paying dividends until the Class of 2020.

The two student groups coughed up $50,000 each from their 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 budgets (and plan to give the same amount next year) to pay for the campus's first-ever solar-power system: 312 photovoltaic cells installed on the roof of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Student Union. The system was turned on in late October and immediately began piping clean energy directly into the electrical grid of a building that is a notorious power hog.

While the actual installation was a matter of months, the project took more than three years to get off the ground and onto the roof, says Thomas D. Cordi, director of ASUC Auxiliary, who worked with several ASUC and Graduate Assembly leaders to keep the enthusiasm hot. Former GA president Eli Iliano and an engineering student, Rob Morris, first proposed the idea of a solar power system back in 2000, and Iliano's successors have continued to pass the torch.

"We wanted to be leaders of sustainability on campus, in the hopes that the university would follow in our footsteps," says Jessica Quindel, now in her second term as GA president. "The system will be cost-effective in the long run, and with the state matching our funds, it was really something we felt we couldn't pass up." (The California Public Utilities Commission kicked in a matching $270,000 as part of a renewable energy incentive program.)

Sunny side up

The broad expanse of photovoltaic tiles covers roughly 4,000 square feet of the student union's roof, the section directly above the Pauley Ballroom, and is capable of generating up to 59 kilowatts of electricity at peak times, enough to power 60 homes. Although the MLK, Jr. building, with the hugely energy-inefficient windows in the Pauley Ballroom, consumes many times that amount - its electricity bill averages $130,000 per year - "that's still 59 fewer kilowatts that we have to transport around campus, and 59 fewer kilowatts that the state has to generate or buy from somewhere," commends Paul Black, a senior engineer with UC Berkeley's Physical Plant Services, who monitors campus power use. "On a hot summer afternoon, when the building needs power most, the MLK system will be producing its maximum and that will significantly help with electricity costs."

The ASUC Auxiliary settled on the PowerGuard system created by the Berkeley company PowerLight for several reasons. The PowerGuard system provides an insulating factor of R-19, which will help reduce energy loss through the roof, and it is laid directly onto the roof via an interlocking tongue-and-groove system that allows additional photovoltaic tiles to be installed later. The student groups opted for a larger inverter - the device that converts the direct current that the system generates via sunlight into the alternating current used by the building - than is now needed in the hope that they will raise enough money to install 60 more tiles in the future.

The original conception called for photovoltaic tiles also to be installed on the distinctive steel lattice that rings the student union's roof, but the project was broken into two phases when that element met with opposition from the architectural design review committee. "We really wanted it to be visible, to make a statement," says the ASUC Auxiliary's Cordi, but there were concerns that covering the steel lattices would compromise the appearance of this significant example of mid-1950s Modernism.

Doing so also will also pose the considerable challenge of complying with the university's stringent seismic safety codes. Getting just the first phase up and running required an intense collaboration among the university's Capital Projects, Physical Plant, PowerLight, and the ASUC Auxiliary staffs. "We all really worked together quite speedily to get this thing running," says John Rolle, the operations manager of the ASUC Auxiliary, who coordinated the three groups. "It required some creative engineering to meet the university's seismic requirements."

Phase I had yet another stumbling block: the roof of the student union was falling apart. "We probably could have limped along for another year, but there were leaks all over the Pauley Ballroom," says Cordi. The ASUC is responsible for the building's maintenance as well as its utility costs, and that meant forking over an additional $120,000 in roof renovations. However, that amount was less than it would have been had the solar system not been installed, because a more highly insulated roofing material would have had to be used in the areas now protected by photovoltaic cells.

Shocking news

The students want the new photovoltaic system to be a model for future sustainability projects. At the moment, the only other building using solar power in the entire UC system is Donald Bren Hall at UC Santa Barbara. But in July, the UC Board of Regents approved a policy - first proposed by the California Student Sustainability Coalition, a confederation of UC students - that is expected to usher in a new era of energy efficiency for the entire UC system. The "Green Building Policy and Clean Energy Standard" requires that 10 megawatts of renewable energy be installed across the 10 campuses, that 10 percent of the university's utility needs be purchased immediately from "clean" energy sources (meaning not derived from fossil fuels), increasing to 20 percent by 2017; all new campus buildings must meet green building standards for energy efficiency; and that energy use across the UC system be cut back to 10 percent below 2000 levels by 2014.

Instruments mounted on the solar array feed data about wind speed, ambient temperature and more to a computerized monitoring system.

That's a tall order. Physical Plant's Paul Black says he will be watching the MLK building's performance closely to see how viable future photovoltaic systems will be for the campus. As part of the PowerLight contract, the company is providing a data system that tracks ambient temperature, wind speed, amount of power generated, and other variables that will allow Physical Plant and other interested parties such as UC Berkeley's Energy Resources Lab to measure the system's impact on the campus's energy needs.

Solar power remains a huge up-front investment that the university is cautious about making, says Black. It will take 17 years before the energy savings pay off the cost of student union system's installation, according to Cordi. The university's energy watchdogs prefer to trim the annual energy usage of the main campus - expected to reach $16.5 million for the 2003-2004 calendar year - through investments that promise shorter-term benefits. "Occupancy sensors that turn off lights when no one is there pay for themselves in five to 10 years," explains Black, while relatively inexpensive new fluorescent lighting systems offer 20 percent cutbacks in energy usage immediately. He says that it should be easy for UC Berkeley to meet the Regents' mandated 10 percent reduction in energy consumption simply by making a greater effort to turn off lights, computer monitors, and photocopy machines, and by looking closely at occupancy schedules. "If we can trim the operating schedule of a building's heating and cooling system even by just a half-hour each day, that's a big savings," Black urges.

Those who focus on the dollar signs are missing the point, however, argues Cordi. "For the students, this is more of a symbolic crusade about renewable resources than a cost-saving measure," he says. "It's meant to be an educational tool that it is possible to do solar in the Bay Area. We really hope that the university will study this installation and think about all the other flat, sunny roofs on campus that could support similar systems."

In the meantime, Blue and Gold territory just got a little greener.