Design Corner

Clean & Free Power

By Dave Hammel


aced with the potential of ongoing funding cutbacks, now is the opportune time for community recreation centers to take a hard look at the potentially significant savings offered by solar power.

Once considered an expensive and exotic energy source feasible in only the sunniest of climes, solar energy today can be used effectively most anywhere in the country. And the increasing number of federal, state and local tax credits and incentives has made solar an attractive economic alternative to natural gas, propane and other traditional fuels.

In one hour, more sunlight energy falls on the earth than is used by the entire world population in one year. Recreation centers use more energy per square foot than schools, hospitals and office buildings. Therefore, it behooves recreation center operators to see if capturing some of this abundant sunshine power makes sense.

There is no question that a recreation center's location and the relative cost of local energy sources are important in determining the feasibility of solar. A center in a community with abundant sunshine and relatively high natural gas prices is a prime candidate. But an increasing number of public buildings in the Midwest and Northeast, where sunshine is scarcer and energy prices are high, are using solar systems to their advantage.

It is generally more cost-effective to incorporate solar systems in a recreation center's original design. However, there can be significant savings from add-on systems as well. If, for whatever reason, solar was rejected or not even considered when the center was built, it is still prudent to take another look. A lot has happened in the solar power arena during the past five years.

Thermal solar systems are particularly well suited for recreation centers where swimming pools act as large storage tanks providing year-round heat for pools and showers. Recreation centers with natatoriums can spend as much as a third of their energy bill heating and sanitizing the swimming pool water and providing warm, clean air in the indoor swimming environment.

The two thermal systems most in use today are the glass flat plate collector and the plastic absorber collector. The glass flat plate collector, which uses antifreeze as a heat transfer fluid and a heat exchanger, is the most efficient (85 percent) and most expensive ($80 to $90 per square foot of collector area). The plastic absorber collector is about half the cost of the flat plate collector but considerably less efficient. It heats pool water directly and is best used for seasonal outdoor pool heating.

Also available for use by recreation centers are a wide variety of solar photovoltaic systems, which convert sunlight directly into electricity. A typical system uses roof- or ground-mounted panels of cells comprised of poly-crystalline silicon that activates the movement of electrons. An inverter transforms the direct current (DC) power into alternating current (AC) for direct use by the recreation center or for back-feeding (reverse metering) into the power grid and an eventual credit from the local utility.

In bright sunlight, a square foot of a conventional photovoltaic panel will yield approximately 10 watts of power. The approximate cost for a typical silicon cell system, before incentives, is $80 to $100 per square foot of collector or $7 to $8 per watt of capacity.

The important words here are "before incentives." The relative high initial cost of installing a photovoltaic system can be considerably reduced through a variety of incentives and credits aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and dependency on fossil fuels.

In Colorado, for example, it is possible to save a significant amount off of the cost of a solar installation, resulting in a very short payback time. The incentives include rebates from the local utility (Xcel Energy of Colorado) of up to $3.50 per installed watt.

The incentives could include a federal renewable energy grant equal to 30 percent of the total cost. Created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the grants may be taken in lieu of an investment tax credit. Since most recreation centers are non-taxpayers, these federal incentives may only be accessed through a solar power purchase agreement (SPPA). Also, these grants can only be used for solar photovoltaic systems. Solar pool-heating systems are not eligible.

An SPPA is an alternative to financing and owning a solar power system. It offers public agencies an opportunity to install solar power at their recreation center without paying upfront costs or worrying about system operation and maintenance. Essentially a third-party "for-profit" entity will pay for the system and then sell the power back to the municipality or nonprofit for a period of 20 years. Since the third party owns the system, they take advantage of the incentives and pass it on through the agreement.

Solar incentives vary considerably from state to state and among utility providers. To get particulars on incentives and programs available in your state and community, visit The comprehensive database for energy renewables and efficiency is a project of the North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

In addition to incentives and rebates, there are a number of other financing options available in various parts of the country, including power purchasing agreements (discussed above) and contracts with energy service companies that can cover all the upfront costs of installing solar energy systems. Consider a no-interest bond available from the Treasury Department called Clean Renewable Energy Bonds or CREBs. This is a great way to pay for a system over time at no interest. The bond holder receives the federal tax credit in lieu of the traditional bond interest. Renewable energy certificates, which recognize solar as a preferred environmentally friendly source of energy, can also be sold for another source of revenue.

In considering solar power for recreation centers, it is important to understand that the traditional evaluation of capital projects often undervalues the fact that energy-saving projects can be paid for with saved operating budget dollars. Once the capital costs are paid, the solar energy is virtually free. Without solar, the recreation centers and taxpayers will continue to pay utility companies for "wasted" energy.

Another factor to consider: Solar systems require little maintenance and will function for decades, much longer than conventional HVAC systems. And since sunshine is free, it is not subject to the ongoing price and supply volatility of traditional electricity generated from natural gas and other fossil fuels.

Don't be discouraged if you are in a state that has considerably fewer "sun days" than Colorado or California. Solar power technology has advanced to the point that it is often the mechanical infrastructure—not the amount of daily sunshine—that is the major factor in whether or not solar power is cost-effective. After all, Germany is the largest solar power producer in the world, and it gets approximately the same amount of sunshine per year as Seattle.

Finally, solar power has had a boom-bust history of development largely because of the uncertainty of government incentives and other rebates. What the government gives, it can take away, but there appears to be a growing consensus that solar power—clean and free—is the fuel of the future.

The existing solar technology is efficient and will only get better. Public opinion polls consistently underscore the public's concern over greenhouse gases and other environmental harm caused by our traditional petroleum-based fuels. Community recreation centers that fail to give serious consideration to the use of solar energy do a disservice not only to the environment, but to the taxpayers and customers who pay to support them.


Dave Hammel is a principal with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. Headquartered in Denver, Barker Rinker Seacat has designed more than 150 community recreation centers throughout the country. Hammel was the principal designer for the renovation of the North Boulder Recreation Center in Boulder, Colo., the first LEED-certified recreation center in the country. For more information, visit

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