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Monday, November 10, 2008

Solar heating system attracts renewed interest at Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park

From an article by Dustin Block in The Daily Reporter:
Solar power, a renewable-energy casualty of the early 1990s slain by cheap fossil fuels, is showing signs of life.

The Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee is reviving a solar-powered heating system at its community center in the county’s Washington Park.

The solar-thermal system was built in the late-1970s as an alternative source of energy during the oil boycott. But as energy prices fell in the U.S. in the 1980s, interest in renewable energy waned and the Washington Park system was shut down.

Joey Zocher, the Urban Ecology Center’s Washington Park program manager, estimated the solar power system is worth about $250,000. But it will take at least $100,000 to get the community center system running again, she said. The building also needs a new roof.

"The county is supportive,” Zocher said, “but we still have some money to find."

The story behind Washington Park's solar experiment encapsulates the country’s experience with renewable resources, said Bob Ramlow, who has worked with solar power in Wisconsin since the 1970s and was one of the founders of the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair in central Wisconsin.

"In the 1970s, the whole country was excited and thinking about saving energy," he said. "People wanted to do their part. It was patriotic to be involved with renewable energy and energy conservation."

Ramlow said the symbolic moment when the country abandoned that commitment was in 1981, when Ronald Reagan moved into the White House and, on his first day, had the solar collectors on the roof taken off.

"The word from the administration from then to now,” Ramlow said, “was renewable energy sources are the energy of the future, but now we need nuclear, coal and oil."

He said it took nearly 30 years for renewable energy to recover in the U.S. But projects such as reviving solar energy in Washington Park suggest change is coming.

Shawn Young, solar thermal division director for Madison-based H & H Solar Energy Services, inspected Washington Park's solar system last year. He sent a report to Milwaukee County concluding the system was worth saving.

"It's not the best solar collector on the market,” Young said, “but it's not obsolete."

The system collects sunlight on the building's roof and transfers the energy to a liquid that fuels the furnace and generates heat. When it was originally installed, the designers anticipated cutting energy use in the building by 60 to 80 percent. Now, the system could cut energy use 10 to 15 percent, Young said. The decline in savings is mainly because of the system's age.

But even with the reduced efficiency, the county could save $1,000 a month on its heating bill, Zocher said. She estimated the investment needed to refurbish the Washington Park system would take eight years to pay back.

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