The ‘Rock’ Goes Solar

One of America’s most notorious prisons, Alcatraz – also known as the ‘Rock’ – now hosts a 307 kilowatt solar power system along with a deep cycle battery back-up unit.

The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) partnered with the National Parks Service (NPS) to install the 1,300 solar panels, using a $3.6 million cash stimulus from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

According to the NREL, the solar array will power lights and appliances and generate close to 400,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.

The prison has also cut carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 337,000 kilograms a year and been able to slash generator hours by 60 percent, thanks to a 2,000-amp-hour deep cycle battery bank and other energy efficiency measures.

The project is part of a larger plan between The US Department of Energy, the NREL and the NPS to bring clean energy to America’s national parks and historic landmarks such as Alcatraz.

Andy Walker, senior engineer and task leader for design assistance at the DOE, says solar power saves money on fuel that would otherwise have to be transported to Alcatraz by boat across from the mainland.

“The cost of transporting diesel fuel to the island (maintenance costs and the price of the fuel itself) boosted the cost of electricity for the island to about 76 cents a kilowatt-hour. The PV project brings that cost to 71 cents a kilowatt-hour, and that includes the capital costs of buying the solar panels and erecting them on roofs.”

The Alcatraz solar plant took a while to get off the ground, however. Initial plans were to install solar panels on the roof of the prison’s New Industries Building and the Cellhouse, but a local historic landmark action group’s protests over the visibility of the panels on the New Industries Building array stalled work.

Fortunately, innovations in solar panel technology – namely the ability of modern panels to produce more power – meant the Cellhouse block could host the entire system, leaving it out of sight from the Bay or inside the prison.

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