Free. Clean. Limitless.

April 1, 2015, Department, by Becky Clay

Colorado’s South Suburban Parks and Recreation Department purchased 725 panels in two community solar arrays like the ones shown here, which they estimate will save thousands of dollars.What could possibly be free, clean AND limitless?

The sun. That ball of gas almost 93 million miles away is an undeniable necessity to humankind, but the potential of solar energy is just starting to unravel in the 21st century.

Solar energy is currently one of the fastest-growing energy sources, with Solar Energy Industries Association reporting that demand increased 41 percent in 2013, second only to natural gas. Its customers range from environmentally conscious individuals to billion-dollar corporations. Solar is quickly becoming mainstream with the potential to change the way we think, and more importantly, act, on energy policies.

These national trends should inspire park and recreation departments to think twice about their efforts and reconsider if they can do more to conserve. There are a number of compelling reasons why departments should make the switch to solar, including building public support, conserving resources, education/interpretation opportunities, opportunities to reduce your agency’s reliance on fossil fuel, and a chance to save money on your operational costs.

The reasons behind switching may vary, but the motivation to choose solar over fossil fuel should be deeply connected to the mission of the agency. It is a responsibility that organizations have to the communities they serve and the world in which they live to choose sustainable actions.

What Communities Want

The mindset of our communities is quickly evolving, and park departments must adapt. Maryland’s Montgomery County Department of Parks, part of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), is a fantastic example of an organization that has adapted to their community needs while creatively using their resources. The agency held a public forum regarding the possible installation of solar arrays at two parks designated as unsuitable for recreation. At this forum, the department received “overwhelmingly favorable support,” according to M-NCPPC Park Planner Dominic Quattrocchi. 

The agency anticipates that they will see a 21 percent reduction in their electricity consumption, which translates to an estimate of $140,000 to $220,000 in annual electrical cost savings. The department plans to extend opportunities of solar power into parking lots, roads, trails and stand-alone systems through photovoltaic (PV) systems.

Some communities may think more favorably of these actions than others, but overall the consensus is shifting toward a more eco-conscious mindset. A recent study by Sungevity indicates that nine in 10 Americans believe that “solar energy should account for a bigger part of the country’s energy supply.” Considering that solar energy only makes up less than one percent of the world’s energy consumption, the future for solar energy looks bright with plenty of room for expansion. Moreover, 81 percent of those surveyed agreed that reducing our dependency on coal, oil, gas and nuclear energy is the best choice for the environment and the economy.

The speculative nature of fossil fuels leaves many people weary of our reliance on them. Switching to solar can reduce our heavy dependence on fossil fuels, which would in turn decrease greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As more people start to understand the impacts of fossil fuels, they will seek more conservation-minded solutions.

In California, the county of San Diego has created a way for the public to better understand the impacts of solar energy. In 2010, the county was awarded funding from a Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) grant to install two PV systems at two community centers. As part of that initiative, they created a web-based dashboard that shares the benefits of each PV system at the community centers. Converting hard data into easily understandable information allows the public to fully appreciate the efforts behind new energy solutions.

Turning On the Switch

Solar power is a new technology, but it isn’t out of reach. Take, for example, the Celery Bog Nature Area in West Lafayette, Indiana. The parking lot for the nature center needed lighting, but only when the nature center offered evening programs. Dan Dunten and the staff at West Lafayette Parks found that running electricity to the parking lot was expensive and required either overhead wires or underground installation. Instead, they opted for solar-powered, motion-detector lights that stay on for six minutes unless additional motion is detected. This environmentally friendly, budget-ready and safety-oriented solution is a great example of an organization that is thinking innovatively and making wise decisions. Park and recreation departments that take steps, whether small or large, to reduce their impact speak loudly about their mission and environmental standards.

Economic Incentives

The environment should be a contributing factor to an agency’s goals, but the economic viability of a project must be considered as well. Solar equipment is quickly shifting from expensive to practical because of advancing technology, higher demand and commercial investment. As a consequence, according to GTM Research, solar equipment prices dropped 10 percent from 2013 to 2014.

Partnerships with utility companies and clean energy organizations allow even more opportunities for utilizing solar technology. South Suburban Parks and Recreation (SSPR) located just south of Denver, Colorado, is a great example of a department that is leveraging community partnerships to use solar. The district recently purchased 725 panels within two community solar arrays through a partnership with Clean Energy Collective. The energy collected in the panels will be applied to four irrigation pumps for their golf course. SSPR predicts that they will see a return on investment (ROI) between years six and seven, with annual energy savings between $90,000 and $100,000. In 20 years, they expect a ROI of 233 percent. This kind of payback allows the department to invest in more solar equipment, which will continue to save money and resources.

Thinking Forward

Park and recreation departments are a reflection of the values, goals and mindsets of their communities, and it is your responsibility to show that conservation can and should be a priority. Whether lighting a parking lot or watering an entire golf course, solar energy is quickly become a cost-effective method of saving resources. Ask yourself what free, clean and limitless energy could mean to your organization, and take action.

Becky Clay is a Customer Sales Team Member for Boulder Parks and Recreation in Colorado.