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NMSU’s recent addition of solar panels cut costs, energy usage

New Mexico State University has partnered with Ameresco Inc. on a solar panel project, saving the university energy, money and lowering its carbon footprint.

Positive Energy system installers Steven Fonseca, left, Eddie Marruto, center, and Mark Eshelman, right, are joined by Joni Newcomer, second from left, and Ameresco senior project manager Doug Hill as they celebrate the completion of a new solar panel array installation on campus. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
Solar panel canopy view of parking lot
Sunlight streams through cracks between panels at the site of the newly installed solar panel array on campus. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The solar panel canopy, located in Parking Lot 100 on Stewart Street, will produce 108 kilowatts of power at full capacity. The carport also will provide shade for 46 cars at no extra charge and on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“The array will serve to offset power consumption by the Satellite Chiller Plant by up to 108 kW per hour maximum. That means NMSU is buying that much less power from El Paso Electric,” said George Davis, senior project manager of Ameresco. “The amount of power serving the Satellite Chiller Plant can be affected by many things including weather and dirt accumulation on the surface of the panels.”

Energy converted from the solar panels will directly affect the Satellite Chiller Plant, where the Las Cruces campus cooling system is controlled. It houses two large chillers. The 2,500-ton centrifugal duplex chiller cools water to 41 F. Water is then pumped to buildings across campus for use in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to cool the buildings. The second system is a 1,000-ton glycol chiller, which contains ethylene glycol in order to chill water to 23 F for ice production. The ice is produced at night, during El Paso Electric's off-peak billing hours, saving NMSU a significant amount of money.

“With the correct permit for Lot 100, anyone can park in the shade of the panels,” said joni newcomer, manager of environmental policy and sustainability at NMSU. “But remember that idling a car engine is one of the worst things we can do for the environment, so if no space is available, find another place to park – walking is good for you.”

Ameresco, an energy services company, custom designed the system to fit NMSU’s exact specifications and budget needs. A total of $550,000 was spent to complete this project. In 2013, NMSU entered an energy performance contract with Ameresco in an effort to cut energy consumption and costs. The energy conservation contract has made improvements completing the following projects: updating interior and exterior lighting, exterior pole-mounted lighting, retro commissioning, variable air volume retrofits, economizer upgrades and chilled water pump bypasses. The solar panel project used 75 percent local subcontractors, helping keep jobs local and costs efficient.

Solar panels use particles of light from the sun to set electrons free from atoms, which generates a flow of electricity. Solar panels comprise many smaller units called photovoltaic cells. Each photovoltaic cell is a combination made up of two semi-conducting materials, usually silicon. Photovoltaic cells need to establish an electric field in order to function.

“Solar panels actually work better the colder it is, and work off the light of the sun, not the heat,” said Mark Westbrock of Positive Energy Solar.

The project is not NMSU’s first venture into solar energy. The first solar panels on campus, installed in 2007, are on a parking structure at the NMSU Campus Health Center, located on Stewart Street and Breland. It is an 18 kW grid-tied photovoltaic parking structure where one third of its energy directly affects the health center.

“As part of the Energy Conservation project we hope to install another array of solar-covered parking spaces at Lot 39, south of Chamisa Village,” newcomer said. “It will be a bit smaller than the 108 kW array at the Satellite Chiller Plant.”

For more information on the energy managing projects and sustainability on the NMSU campus, please visit http://sustainability.nmsu.edu/.