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Project

Epic Systems Installs Epic Solar (Wisconsin)

Credits: ©2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Epic Systems is a provider of health care software whose facilities director believes it’s more cost-effective to build a big renewable energy project than to come back later and expand it. So, by the end of 2011, the largest solar project yet built in Wisconsin is taking shape on Epic’s corporate campus in Verona, Wisconsin. And by the middle of next year, the new solar "farm" is expected to double in size again. As of June 2011, about 1,300 solar panels have been installed on a space-frame structure above a parking lot. The remaining parking spaces are underground, covered with vegetation. It is just one part of Epic’s plans to wean itself off fossil fuels. Most buildings on the campus are heated and cooled with a ground-source heat pump system, eliminating the need for natural gas for heating and electricity for cooling. The company is also considering construction of two utility-scale wind turbines that would generate up to three megawatts of electricity, as well as a biomass-to-energy project that would convert Epic’s food waste and landscaping trimmings into energy.

 

Epic Systems Solar Parking

Epic Systems, a Verona, Wisconsin, developer of health care IT software, already has 1,300 solar panels over a parking site as of 5 June 2011. ©2011 Michael Sears / JSOnline

The following article is from the Milwuakaa Journal Sentinel
Software firm reaches for the sun
By Thomas Content, June 5, 2011
With sales soaring, Epic invests in solar 'farm'

By the end of the year, the largest solar project yet built in Verona, Wisconsin will take shape in the rolling countryside that Epic Systems calls home.

And by the middle of next year, the new solar "farm" will double in size again.

Clearly, Epic, a fast-growing provider of sought-after health care software that's hiring 1,000 people just this year, doesn't embrace small projects.

It's more cost-effective to build a big renewable energy project than to come back later and expand it, said Bruce Richards, director of facilities and engineering.

And it fits in with a green vision espoused by company founder and chief executive Judith Faulkner.

"We were in a meeting, and I was discussing the payback on a particular project, thinking she might have some concerns," said Bruce Richards, director of facilities and engineering at Epic. "But she didn't hesitate. She said, 'But once it's paid off, the energy is free, right?'"

Epic clearly has the financial wherewithal to undertake a green-energy investment that other firms might seek state dollars to help fund. Officials declined to disclose the cost of the project.

The company is a developer of health care IT software that helps hospitals move toward electronic medical records. Epic sales grew 27% in 2010. Revenue reached $825 million in 2010, compared with $76 million in 2001.

Focused on sustainability
Epic is an economic engine that's a Wisconsin outlier: A booming business that's about as far from the state's manufacturing heritage as you can get.

The company is moving to wean itself off fossil fuels in a big way.

Already, most buildings on the sprawling campus are heated and cooled with a ground-source heat pump system, which means the campus needs no natural gas for heating and no electricity for cooling in the summer.

About 1,300 solar panels were erected in recent months on a latticelike structure above an employee parking lot.

Faulkner picked the color of the lattice to match the deep blue light posts that dot downtown Verona, Richards said.

The remaining parking spaces are underground, to retain the pastoral feel of the campus. The result, Richards tells a visitor walking between buildings across the complex, "You're walking on a green roof right now."

Richards says the driver of the green campus and move for energy self-reliance comes from a vision of doing right by the planet.

"Sustainability, that's really what it's all about," he said. "We're looking for 100-year sustainability here. Everything we do in design and put in, that's what we're looking to do."

It also is a statement by a firm looking to attract software engineers who could choose to work at places the likes of Google and Yahoo. Studies show employees in that demographic want their company to care about the planet.

A company that wants software developers to shun the sunny Silicon Valley climate is offering its own alternative to Google's solar panel-dominated corporate headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

"It's really a Verona version of the Googleplex," said Niels Wolter, a Madison solar power consultant.

"Here's another tech company headed up by engineers who believe in science and think climate change is happening, and they have the profit and the money to cover their campus with solar," he said.

What looks like a construction site on rolling hills won't turn into another cookie-cutter subdivision with McMansions.

Instead, workers are drilling deep underground to place 2,000 geothermal wells. Above ground, concrete foundations have been poured that will be the staging for solar panels that will be mounted 13 feet up.

Why so high? To allow the land beneath the panels - and above the geothermal wells - to continue to be farmed, probably alfalfa.

Biggest solar site in Wisconsin
By next summer, more than 7,500 new panels are expected to generate electricity, 2.2 megawatts, enough to power nearly 300 typical homes. That will be by far the biggest solar electric project in the state, and one of the largest in the upper Midwest.

Until now, the largest projects have been Johnson Controls Inc.'s corporate headquarters in Glendale and the Photovoltaic Education Laboratory built last year by Milwaukee Area Technical College north of E. Capitol Drive. Together, they generate less than one megawatt.

Yet, Epic is growing so fast that even thousands of solar panels won't meet its total energy demand. The 500-acre site is seeing construction of a massive addition to its learning center, the centerpiece of which is a 10,000-square-foot auditorium to be built by 2013. The existing auditorium, which seats more than 5,000, isn't big enough to accommodate the annual "users group" meeting that attracts Epic customers from around the country.

Epic is eyeing other moves in its bid toward energy self-reliance. Under evaluation, Richards said, is construction of two utility-scale wind turbines that would generate up to 3 megawatts of electricity, as well as a biomass-to-energy project that would convert food waste and landscaping trimmings from the campus into energy.

"We're looking for 100-year sustainability here," said Richards, who joined Epic after running the engineering department at General Motors Corp.'s Janesville Assembly Plant until the factory closed.

"We use as much green or recycled materials as we can, Look at the copper roofs on the buildings, that's really for sustainability. It costs you more up front, but sustainability-wise it's the right thing to do."

Leftover materials from construction projects are reused in unique forms around the campus. Here, ironworkers shaped the blue metal left over from the solar overhang into animal sculptures. There, a two-story "tree house" made with construction extras boasts a giant conference table and wireless Internet capability, ready for outdoorsy team meetings.

Uncertain times
Epic is embarking on its ambitious green-energy expansion at a time when Wisconsin's renewable energy sector is facing uncertainty.

Policies pushed by the administration of Republican Gov. Scott Walker are shifting away from the previous administration's push to wean the state from an overreliance on electricity generated by coal, a key contributor of global warming gases.

Moves to build more wind farms and generate more power from biomass have been pushed back. The state's Focus on Energy program is under new management, and the state's largest utility has scaled back on a renewable energy collaborative.

The price of solar power has come down significantly in recent years, even though it still has a ways to go to make it cost-competitive with other forms of power, on a per-unit-of-energy basis. A federal SunShot strategy launched by Energy Secretary Steven Chu seeks to make technology investments to make solar cost-competitive within several years.

On a smaller scale, Johnson Controls incorporated a similar geothermal-below-solar system design into its green corporate headquarters in Glendale. That campus became a showcase for some of the company's energy-efficiency and renewable energy integration technologies.

Other examples of major solar investments are found at Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc, Menomonee Falls-based Kohl's Corp. sites and GE Healthcare in Waukesha.

"It's cool to see corporate citizens are keeping solar going forward," Wolter said. "It's an interesting contrast, as this new administration is so pro-business and they're cutting all this stuff, yet a lot of the cutting-edge businesses are doing solar."

The Epic project
When it's completed, the Epic Systems solar project will consist of nearly 9,000 solar panels, including 1,300 built this year and more than 7,500 more to be built by mid-2012.

In energy terms, Epic will generate a total of 2,560 kilowatts, or 2.5 megawatts.

Here's how the other largest solar projects in Wisconsin stack up, along with the year they were built:

Milwaukee Area Technical College, Milwaukee, 2010: 540 kilowatts.

Johnson Controls, Glendale, 2008: 385 kilowatts

Orion Energy Systems, Manitowoc, 2010: 341 kilowatts

GE Healthcare Waukesha, 2008: 240 kilowatts