Saturday, January 9, 2010

CASE STUDY: Inmates Enjoy Solar Energy in Jail

By Nathan Lew

Now, bright, clean, renewable solar energy is turning to its darker side; the Charleston County jail in South Carolina. Unlikely perhaps, but the large flat roofs of Charleston County detention center, also known as, "The House", which aims to improve its status as one of the nation's most crowded inmate facilities with an ongoing $100-million expansion slated for completion next year.

The solar array will also improve power consumption figures, which already reach 4.25 million kilowatts a year, through regional utility South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G). This is expected to double on completion of the new facility.

No mention has been made where the panels are to be placed, but the logical assumption is that they will go on the new expansion, some 323,000 square feet in size (or only slightly less than the original detention center, built in 1966, and its 1993 expansion), largely because of the two previous sites older roofs.

The plan is to cover said roof with American-made solar panels to offset a portion of the detention center's electricity needs, through a $1.1 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA, which provides funding for governmental entities and schools to install energy efficiency devices like solar power. The grant competes for $2.8 million allotted to the state for renewable energy projects through ARRA.

The county believes the panels would more than pay for themselves through energy-cost savings, and some officials even speculate that the installation could help attract "clean energy" companies to the region. This would benefit South Carolina's citizens, who already hold a record as the sixth largest electricity consumers in the nation.

The solar photovoltaic "farm", described as potentially producing 640,000 kilowatts a year, or enough to power about 5,300 homes, will also be responsible for eliminating 460 metric tons per year of carbon dioxide from coal-burning generation plants. This is the same as taking 84 cars off the road, or planting 11,785 trees, or preserving 104 acres of South Carolina's pine forests.

South Carolina's electricity generation mix currently consists of 61-percent coal-fired power plants, with the state's electric cooperatives getting fully 80 percent of their electricity from coal. The solar proposal couldn't have come at a better time, with Waxman-Markey in the wings and South Carolina residents waking to the dangers of burning coal or piling the ash alongside streams and communities.

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