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SW Va. jail unveils state's largest rooftop solar panels

May 30th, 2013 12:55 pm by Wes Bunch

SW Va. jail unveils state's largest rooftop solar panels

Photo by Wes Bunch.

DUFFIELD — The Southwest Virginia Regional Jail authority unveiled the state's largest rooftop solar thermal panel installation during a ceremony Thursday afternoon at the regional jail in Duffield.

Built by Sigora Solar of Waynesboro, Va., the installation features 72 solar thermal collectors that will produce 1.78 million BTU each day to heat the facility's water.

The project, which Sigora and jail officials said came in 15 percent under budget and ahead of schedule, cost $465,749. The original project costs were estimated at $542,000. Funding for the project was provided by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The solar collectors are expected to save between $35,000 and $40,000 per year on propane water heating costs, officials said.

Maj. George Hembree with the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail said the move to solar energy made the most sense for the facility since it relies on propane to heat its water.

"Unlike Haysi and Abingdon, who have natural gas, we don't have access to that so we have propane," Hembree said. "So we got a grant to put these panels in to heat our water and lower our propane costs.

“We use a lot of water here. This morning we had 565 inmates, and it's Department of Corrections rated for 278. So anyway we can save money in this day and time is a blessing. Everybody's budget is tight, so we're looking forward to lower propane costs in the coming years."

Sigora Solar President Andy Bogdan Bindea, a native of Romania, said the decision to go with a rooftop installation of the collectors was made with the jail's pending expansion in mind.

"You still see a lot of space here on the ground," Bindea said. "However they are planning a jail expansion which is set to begin this summer at one point and all of this ground is going to be covered by the additional building that they are going to install."

Bindea said solar thermal collectors would allow the jail to pay off the project in 10 years and realize savings for several more decades after that.

"The technology is very much tested and proven," Bindea said. "The collector's life expectancy is 35 to 40 years, but the system itself is very much a traditional solar-thermal system that has a 5,000 gallon heat storage tank in the back and a pumping station especially designed for it with pumps and monitors that are internet accessible, so from anywhere in the world we can log into the monitoring system and see how it is doing that day."

Bindea added: "Solar hot water was a really good application for them, because anywhere they heat water with propane, which is a whole lot more expensive than natural gas, it's a good idea to lower those costs with solar hot water."

Virginia State Sen. Phillip Puckett, a supporter of the project who attended Thursday's unveiling, said the prospect of long-term savings was not only a plus for the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail Authority, but also for the localities that fund it.

"We heard two things here that were significant," Puckett said. "The project was on-time and under budget and if we continue to do things like this, this is about the future. It will save money as we go down the road. In 10 or 11 years this project will be paid for and yet those solar panels will still be saving dividends.

“So it's huge for the regional jail operation, that's become a very expensive operation because we've had to expand... so when we have projects like this that save us money it's a win-win for everybody."

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