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Alcatraz Is Now Solar With 1,360 Panels

Credits: ©2010 Correctional News

We first reported on plans for the infamous Alcatraz Island prison to receive solar panels in June 2010. The solar power system has become a reality in August 2012, powering lights and appliances that for 75 years have been powered by diesel fuel ferried across the bay! Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, California, USA, is referred to as "The Rock" and was home to a notorious prison for 75 years. The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) collaborated with the US National Park Service (NPS) and the DOE Federal Energy Management Program to transform the island's electricity source from diesel fuel to renewable energy using photovoltaic panels on the rooftop of the Cellhouse building. A 307-kilowatt photovoltaic (PV) array sits on the roof of the main Cellhouse building, attached to two 2,000-amp-hour battery strings and an inverter plant. A massive solar battery system helps power the island when the sun doesn't shine, hidden from view of the 1.4 million visitors the island and prison get each year. The new 1,300-panel system produces close to 400,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by about 337,000 kilograms a year and reducing the time the generator runs from 100% to 40%. The NPS also made some energy efficiency changes, such as better light bulbs and changes in operation to reduce energy consumption. (Scroll to bottom for additional resources)


Alcatraz Rainwater Catchment System

Other than fog drip and winter rains, Alcatraz Island is without a source of fresh water. Historically, both the military and the federal prison had built cisterns to capture rainwater, but they fell into disrepair. Today, a new rainwater catchment system has adapted the historic cisterns from the federal prison shower rooms. Designed by WaterSprout of Oakland, CA, the system will capture 15,000 gallons of rainwater, matching the annual needs of the gardens. It is based on gravity, where water from the cell house roof drains to a downspout, that is then directed to the cisterns. The water is filtered to stop feathers and larger debris with a first-flush diverter, and then goes through a sand filter where beneficial bacteria neutralize any potentially harmful bacteria. ©2010 NPS

"The Rock" has had some infamous residents on this craggy island including "Machine Gun Kelly," Al Capone, and the "Birdman". Now, the prison is host to 1,300 solar panels that are part of an effort by the NPS and the U.S. DOE’s NREL to bring clean energy to national parks and landmarks in the US. Diesel fuel use has been slashed, and that means far less corrosion of pipes and smokestacks, and less pollution in the bay.

The $3.6 million project was funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act — and is saving money to the government as of August 2012. 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, said Andy Walker, a senior engineer and task leader for design assistance in the DOE Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) at NREL. 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.

Meeting Historic Landmark Guidelines

The National Park Service put the solar panels on Alcatraz's Cellhouse building because they are less visible to tourists than they would have been on the New Industries Building. The project was a long time coming.

NREL's involvement began in 1995, when FEMP enlisted NREL's Applying Technologies team to monitor the strength of the sun at the island, do a feasibility study, and mock up what a solar installation would look like from up close and from across the bay.

FEMP and the NPS contracted with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to install PV on Alcatraz's New Industries Building and sell power to NPS for a penny less per kilowatt-hour than what it was costing for diesel electricity.

SMUD got as far as putting a new roof on Alcatraz's New Industries Building and installing roof stanchions to hold the solar panels.

But a historic landmark group protested that the solar panels would be too visible. They could be seen by tourists from an exit door in the exercise yard — and that would mar the historic nature of the New Industries Building, where Al Capone once worked a sewing machine, and Machine Gun Kelly did the laundry.

The Cellhouse became a possible alternative because its roof was less visible from the ground or from the bay.

The NPS asked SMUD to put the panels on the Cellhouse roof, but SMUD wanted a guarantee that this time the panels would be up for good. The best the NPS's Advisory Council for Historic Preservation could say was that it had "no objections at this time" to the solar panels being on the Cellhouse roof. That wasn't enough assurance for the utility, however, and it dropped out of the project.

When the National Park Service was contemplating doing the project on its own, it assumed that the Cellhouse would be considered more iconic than the New Industries building - It turned out that there were fewer objections to panels being on the Cellhouse. The NPS envisioned solar panels on both the New Industries Building and the Cellhouse, but problems with nesting birds and the visibility of the panels delayed installation, said NREL's Byron Stafford. Happily, the progress made by the PV industry over the years — primarily higher-efficiency PV panels — made it possible to put the entire PV system on the roof of the Cellhouse, where it is less visible.

From Correctional News 2010 — A little green building goes a long way on a small island... The former federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island will once again play a role in removing harmful elements from the community after plans emerged for a solar energy system that will reduce carbon emissions from “the Rock.” Diesel Generators are getting the boot at Alcatraz. New solar panels are being fitted on the building and laundry rooms and will supply up to 60 percent of the island’s power. The prison currently faces power bills of $700,000 a year. Approximately 1,360 solar panels are being installed on the main prison building and ancillary structures to replace two aging diesel generators that power facility operations on the island, according to the National Park Service, which operates Alcatraz. These efforts come on the heels of the 2009 launch of the "solar sailor" solar-powered Alcatraz boat that ferries daytrippers to the infamous island, and the installation of a 15,000 gallon rainwater catchment system.

The project is being funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment, which appropriated $3 billion to the Department of the Interior. The National Park Service received $754 million in stimulus funding for investments in critical infrastructure and facilities, energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives. Almost $260 million of the park service’s ARRA funding was directed to projects throughout California.

“We are extremely excited to have the opportunity to do so much more with our Recovery Act funding than we originally planned,” says Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. “These projects represent critical priorities for us that will also benefit the economy and create jobs in the near term.”

The renewable energy installation will generate an estimated 285 kilowatts of electricity — 40 percent to 60 percent of the electricity for Alcatraz, which attracts about 1 million visitors every year. The existing generators produce significant carbon emissions and particulate matter and are inefficient and expensive to operate, with annual diesel and maintenance costs of about $700,000, officials say.

The nearly 900 solar panels on the roof of the main building will be concealed from view by a 5-foot wall encircling the installation, officials say. Although the solar array located on the roof of the laundry building remain visible, the more than 460 panels were installed in a flat configuration to minimize the visual impact on the historic facilities.

Favorable bids and pricing on the first round of National Park Service projects yielded savings of more than 20 percent, which totaled $129 million less than estimates.

In addition to the almost 70 new projects funded by the stimulus package, NPS officials redirected the surplus to fund critical facility improvements, infrastructure repairs and energy efficiency enhancements on 30 high priority projects across the United States

“Because of the economy, the contractors are so hungry their bids are coming in at less than we estimated. So now all of a sudden we’ve got extra money,” says Dave Barna, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

“This is good news for taxpayers. It’s spreading the money to more parks and more projects. We’re getting more bang for the buck. The dollars are going further,” he says.

The NPS also announced the replacement of 26 projects previously earmarked for funding with 36 backup projects that will receive a total of $9.3 million.

It was necessary to remove those initial projects from the funding plan for a number of reasons, officials say. Some were already completed using non-ARRA funds, while many were removed from the NPS list because they could not be completed within the time frame specified under the Recovery Act. Replacement projects were promoted from a contingency list using established merit-based criteria, including expediency of implementation and ability to address high-priority mission needs, officials say.

The project at Alcatraz extends beyond solar. Since 2005, the Alcatraz Gardens Project has been restoring and replanting the historic gardens of Alcatraz Island. In the past, irrigation water was imported to the island from San Francisco to irrigate the drought tolerant plants that have been selected to restore the gardens. In an effort to achieve a more sustainable solution, WaterSprout designed and constructed a 15,000 gallon rainwater catchment system to irrigate the restored historic gardens.

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  Alcatraz Solar Isn't for Birds Article AUGUST 2012 (240 kb)

  Alcatraz Island Report 2010 (2,267 kb)


Alcatraz Goes Green Radio Program Link