TAMPA — A $20 million project under way will soon make the James A. Haley VA Medical Center the largest producer of solar energy in Hillsborough.
The hospital is building a canopy of solar panels over 4 acres of parking lots, hoping to generate 3.6 megawatts of electricity — enough to supply 10 percent of the hospital's power.
The project is in its preliminary stages. Workers were pouring concrete into 18-foot-deep holes in two parking lots last week. The concrete will stabilize the steel columns that will hold the panels.
Workers will start installing the panels in about a month, according to plans that aim to complete the project by the end of July.
The solar panels, funded through the VA National Energy Business Center, won't affect the medical center's operating budget, other than oversight of the construction, administrators said.
The financial payoff won't come soon, however. It will take 45 years to recoup the cost of the panels, according to Rick Durabb, Haley's energy engineer.
"While it will likely take many years to recover our financial investment in these projects, the multitude of benefits that will be realized through clean energy and other renewable energy projects are most important, said Haley spokeswoman Carolyn Clark. "These benefits include reducing greenhouse gas emissions to improving the quality of the air we breathe. This initiative is good for veterans and good for our environment."
The project is one of more than a dozen at sites for VA hospitals, clinics and national cemeteries aiming to make the government agency "green."
Solar panels have already been installed on rooftops at medical centers in Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Other solar projects are under construction at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in Pinellas County and at the Viera Outpatient Clinic in Brevard County.
Solar energy has steadily increased as a source of power and today accounts for about 1 percent of the country's power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
As is the case with Haley, parking lots are becoming a hot spot for solar power across the country. The wide-open outdoor spaces typically cover a large footprint. As a bonus, panels shade cars.
Last year, the NFL's Washington Redskins topped more than 800 parking spaces at its FedEx Field in Maryland. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden also covered nearly 4 acres of parking lot with solar panels at a cost of only $11 million.
In the past several years, the number of solar customers tapping into Tampa Electric's grid has increased. The company serves all of Hillsborough County, and parts of Pasco, Polk and Pinellas counties. In 2009, it added 50 customers to the grid. In 2010, 55 more tapped in and in 2011, 39 started. The company currently counts 172 such customers. Of those, 140 are residential and 32 commercial, including the largest solar panel system, which belongs to the Tampa Housing Authority's J L Young Apartments. That system is one-tenth the size of the Haley project.
Most mount the photovoltaic cells, more commonly known as solar panels, to rooftops.
Tampa Electric supplies customers with a bidirectional meter, which measures energy collected from sunshine and energy used from burning fossil fuels. Excess solar energy is fed back into the company's grid. Customers get a credit instead of their monthly bill if their panels feed more energy into the grid than they use, but no users have yet been able to rely completely on solar power.
The VA project is part of a plan set in 2005 to reduce the national agency's energy footprint by 30 percent over 10 years, said Jeffrey Karsonovich, chief of facilities management service at Haley.
"This will go a long way toward achieving that goal," he said.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.