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Solar equipment ravaged by floods gets new life

May 24, 2010 - 11:56am


Community members install the New Bohemia solar project in 2005 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. | Photo courtesy of Rich Dana

Community members install the New Bohemia solar project in 2005 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. | Photo courtesy of Rich Dana

Mounting the electrical equipment for a solar array 12 feet off the ground on the side of an art studio building seemed like a safe height at first: it would be well above the 100-year-flood mark and out of reach of vandals.  


“It was a good plan,” says Rich Dana, a former energy consultant, who spearheaded a Department of Energy (DOE) funded project to deploy a 7,200-kilowatt photovoltaic solar energy system in the artsy Cedar Rapids, Iowa neighborhood of New Bohemia in 2005.  “‘The flood waters will never get that high,’ we all thought.”

But not even solar panel inverters mounted up this high could escape the 2008 floods that ravaged many cities in the Midwest, including Cedar Rapids. For four days, the inverters sat submerged under the flood waters—that were just 12 inches from the building’s roof top. The waters rushed into the town because of a breached levee holding back the Cedar River and damaged the equipment, cutting power from the solar array.

It would be another year until those panels converted sunlight into usable electricity.

Bringing solar to New Bohemia

Funded with $65,000 from the DOE in 2005, along with another $75,000 from state and local groups, the solar array was deployed through a joint effort among the Iowa Renewable Energy Association, Alliant Energy, the local utility company, the city of Cedar Rapids, Thorland Company, a local real estate company, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to install a solar project in a Brownfield redevelopment area.

About 40 community members—made up of contractors, working professionals, homeowners and students—took a solar technology workshop and then pitched in to help build the array atop an art studio that was under renovation. The solar installation was made up of 60 panels arranged in three arrays—one fixed, one-single axis tracker and one-dual axis tracker—that pumped electricity back into the grid for Alliant Energy.

“We just thought it would be a natural fit for them,” says Dana, who now works for the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Des Moines, Iowa. “It was a barn raising kind of atmosphere with everyone trying their hand at something: mounting racks, wiring the panels. We wanted people in the community to learn something about solar.”

After the flood, the panels sat dormant. “Obviously, we wanted to see it fixed, but all available funds were going to essential [flood] recovery efforts,” says Dana.

A second chance

The chances of rebuilding the project seemed slim in fall 2008 until Dana was introduced to representatives from SMA-America, Inc., manufacturer of the Sunny Boy inverters. The company stepped in, offering to fix the equipment at no cost.  Alliant Energy stepped in to pay for the shipping of the inverters.

Dana says the company, which is based in California, was sympathetic to the plight of the folks in Cedar Rapids and wanted to see the project up and running.

In spring 2009, Dana and a smaller team of technicians headed back to the Kouba building to replace the inverters.

Since then, the panels have been pumping renewable solar electricity into the grid and acting as “a symbol of the rebirth of the neighborhood,” Dana says.

“The community was rebranding itself as an art destination before it was devastated by the flood,” says Dana. “I think that folks in the neighborhood were really happy to see it go back online.”

NCAT’s Rich Dana is currently seeking funding to install a monitoring kiosk that captures real-time energy output from the solar array.