Occidental College prepares to plug in to solar power

Solar panels hug hillside above Occidental College | Photo courtesy Occidental College

By Brenda Rees

After experiencing a series of setbacks to the initial schedule, the $6.8 million 1-megawatt solar array at Occidental College continues to move ahead with the plan to have the entire project plugged-in, hooked up and generating power by the college’s Founder Day on April 20, 2013.

Construction of the ground-mounted array began about a year ago with the hopes it would have been completed by the spring. However, engineering issues and construction details have delayed the project. According to Oxy Communications Director James Tranquada, the unique design of the array and the fact that city and city planners don’t have specific standards for array projects has made for “a lot of back and forth with details we didn’t expect. There are not a lot of ground-mounted arrays in urban areas. This is completely new.”

Indeed, once completed, Oxy’s solar array will be the largest ground-mounted solar arrays in the City of Los Angeles and one of the largest arrays in the country on a small college campus.

The nearly 5,000 panel project is divided into two parts –  one-third of those panels have been installed atop shade structured in a campus parking lot near what is known as Fuji Hill. (It’s anticipated that those panels will be hooked up and operational in the next month or so.)

The rest of the panels are placed nearby on a southwest-facing hillside. These panels are mounted two to three feet above the ground and will hug the topography of the slope in a curving design base on a hysteresis loop, a mathematical expression that describes the result of an alternating magnetic field applied to ferromagnetic material. (For those mathematically and/or scientifically-challenged, the project resembles either an elongated comma or a fancy paisley design.)

Either way, Oxy is taking aesthetics into account in the creation of large solar arrays; most arrays – especially the BrightSource project in the Mojave Desert – are creatively boring and very utilitarian in scope.

Once both systems are up and running, the system will  provide about 11% percent of the college’s annual electrical usage and cut its electric bill by more than $200,000 a year.

The creative design for the array – envisioned by the firm Lettuce Office in collaboration with college art faculty – uses SunPower panels, known for their efficiency in the trade.

Tranquada said that the ground-mounted panels were not first on the list for Oxy. They wanted to use as much rooftop installation as possible. But with so many historic buildings with red tile (can’t install panels on that), the idea of solar had to go down-down to the ground.

More electrical news at Oxy:

Related to the solar array are new electrical metering devices recently installed on campus classrooms, dorms and other school buildings. It’s the first time the campus is looking at energy (water and electricity) usage. “We can begin to track and accumulate data on where our energy is going,” says Tranquada. “This way we can establish a baseline and encourage reduction as seems fit.”

Watch how high you crank your stereo, students! And turn off that bathroom light!

Check The Eastsider on Tuesday for a story about the Highland Park couple who helped design the Occidental College solar array.

Brenda Rees is a writer and Eagle Rock resident.


  1. So the break even point on that is 34 years and solar panels have a life expectancy of 20-40 years. This is a good investment why again?

    • Of course, if energy rates increase, which is quite likely in the coming decades, the breakeven point could come sooner. Further variables include how this affects student enrollment, alumni giving, etc.

      Economics aside, as an Electrical Engineer who graduated from Oxy’s Physics department, I am quite certain that students were heavily involved in the planing and execution of the project. This experience will undoubtedly pay dividends.

  2. And why do the panels have to take up EXTRA room on a hillside? Can’t they use them to cover parking lots and buildings so we can keep the hillsides green?

  3. Good for Oxy. This is money well spent!

  4. What a waste of open space. I’d be interested in the drainage on the site now. Did they have to put in retaining and/or debris walls and drainage benches around the base of the denuded slope? Why take away the green? Put the solar on top of buildings and parking lots.

    • i believe it says that a 3rd of them were put in a parking area. i am no expert on solar panel placement (like most of us), but I am guessing the remaining 2/3 were put here to achieve the most benefit.

      IMHO it seems much more “green” to create your own power, than to leave a hillside covered with native weeds.

  5. Dan Snowden-Ifft

    The DWP rebate on the project was 50% of project cost. That and other considerations bring the payback time to 12 years. As with almost all solar panels sold in CA the performance warranty is for 25 years. The actual life of the panels could be much longer. On purely economic grounds this was a good investment by the college.

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