Four years after it was conceived as the largest hillside solar array not just in Los Angeles but on any American campus of higher learning, the much-awaited 4,886-panel installation at Occidental College is close to being wrapped up.
“We had originally hoped to have the array completed, hooked up and generating power by now, but this is an unusual project whose engineering, design and construction took time to figure out,” said Jim Tranquada, director of communications at Oxy. “There was a learning curve for everyone involved.”
The $6.8-million, 1-megawatt project was initially scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2012. It will now be finished by the spring of 2013 and inaugurated on April 20, when the college will turn 126 years old.
Oxy’s array is not a bunch of clunky poles with panels designed to ruin the architectural beauty of L.A.’s second-oldest liberal arts college (after St. Vincent's College, the precursor to Loyola Marymount University).
Designed to be both aesthetically pleasing and capable of generating some 11 percent of the college’s annual power consumption, two-thirds of the array’s panels will be mounted just two or three feet off the ground on a southwest-facing hillside near "Mount Fuji."
The earth-hugging panels have been designed by Lettuce Office, a design firm that until recently was based in Highland Park, as well as members of the Oxy arts faculty and a professor of physics named Dan Snowden-Ifft. Using the hysteresis curve, a mathematical expression of the relationship between an object’s magnetic field and the density of its flux, Snowden-Ifft come up with a pictorial representation of thousands of panels that look like a gigantic comma or paisley.
The unusual collaboration “allowed us to take a liberal arts approach to solar power” that combined aesthetically pleasing engineering with power generation, explained Tranquada.
Among other challenges, the city’s Department of Building and Safety had to be satisfied that the array is structurally sound, capable of withstanding Santa Ana high winds. “If we took the conventional approach, it would be straightforward,” Tranquada said. “But because this [array] is a first, there was no standard operating procedure to refer to.”
The remaining third of the array’s panels will form a kind of cantilevered roof atop a parking lot, where vehicles will recieve a bonus—partial shelter from sun and rain.
By using clean power, Oxy will contribute to the removal of 1,250 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year—the equivalent of keeping 250 cars off the road. What’s more, the project will feed home solar installations in Eagle Rock, Highland Park and Mount Washington, where some residents signed up with the college in 2011 to share in a subsidized alternative energy project.
By something of a happy coincidence, Oxy recently installed electrical metering devices for the first time across campus buildings, classrooms and dorms. The idea is to keep track of how much power a particular building or room is consuming.
“It gives us a better way to manage our ability to use power,” said Tranquada.