Sandia LabNews

Sandia Tiger Teams 'brave sleet and snow' to educate cities on solar energy options

NOW I GET IT — Marissa Reno instructs at one of the many workshops at the third annual Solar America Cities meeting in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Neal Singer)

If you think of solar as a photovoltaic panel or hot water heater on a residential rooftop, forget it. Or at least, expand it. 

The third annual Solar America Cities meeting in Salt Lake City in mid-April gave the impression of a solar industry, like Gulliver, beginning to free itself from Lilliputian tie-downs.

There were panel discussions, and even reports of deployment, of solar for defense against terrorism, armed attack, and natural disaster.

NOW I GET IT — Marissa Reno instructs at one of the many workshops at the third annual Solar America Cities meeting in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Neal Singer)

There were reports on removal of restrictive legislation — one requiring million-dollar insurance policies for homeowners choosing photovoltaics  — and of more utility companies providing solar-use data.

There was White House emissary Cyrus Wadia, with a PhD in energy resources from University of California, Berkeley, and “happy to take a break from [his research field of] aqueous nanoparticles,” delivering a keynote speech in which he said in part, “I’m here to listen to you. I’m trying to understand if there’s something we can do from the White House.”

And through it all, like yeast in bread or superheroes without capes, the Sandia solar Tiger Team members (along with peers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, CH2M Hill-Critigen, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, New Mexico State University, and the Florida Solar Energy Center) led discussion groups and circulated through the 175 invitation-only attendees from government, industry, and nonprofits. The researchers urged more extensive and frequent communications among industries, cities, counties, states, retailers, and inventors. They questioned results possibly too good to be true and were available in general to assist the spread of solar options in 25 US cities selected through a DOE competition. 

Nitty-gritty challenges of solar deployment

The discussion was about down-home, nitty-gritty problems of solar deployment, though technical advances were also reported. (Particularly imaginative was the moonlight sensor: an idea to smarten LED streetlights so that they dimmed and brightened with the waxing and waning of the moon. For perspective, there are 30,626 streetlights using energy every night in metropolitan Albuquerque, according to a Public Service Company of New Mexico representative contacted by the Lab News.)

The mayor of Pittsburgh issued a proclamation praising Sandia solar researchers for work in jumpstarting solar projects in the three-river city (see below).

Sandia teams worked several projects with host Salt Lake City. 

One was a study to see whether photovoltaics could reduce the need to handle peak-time electrical loads by building a bigger substation and installing thicker overhead electric lines to carry the increased current through a suburban neighborhood. To date, the studies conducted by Abe Ellis (6335), Mark Ralph (6324), and Garth Corey (1655) indicate that residential home solar could not provide enough additional electricity, but larger collectors on nearby commercial buildings might.

In another Utah effort with national implications, a Sandia team is responding to the desire of a large-scale commercial home builder for a simple standard method to compute the added value of solar to the sale price of a house. Lack of such standards make the sale of houses with solar equipment problematic, because the value of the energy provided by the systems is not understood or captured in the sale price.

Other solar problems call upon Sandia’s role as trusted technical advisor. Sometimes solar homebuilders present figures of unusual solar efficiency to homebuyers. On the one hand, Tiger Team members like the idea of large-scale homebuilders making solar equipment standard, rather than optional, on their homes. It means solar would be considered a mass-market player in housing, rather than the occasional entry from an energy rebel. But the Sandia team — Beth Richards (6733), Dick Fate (6473), Howard Passell (6733), Marlene Brown (5737), and Jeff Zirzow (6339) — at the SAC meeting want to see data on such claims. One simple tool against overstating efficiencies, says Marlene, is ‘we’ll look at the utility bills over a number of months and see how much is actually saved, compared with comparable non-solar houses.”

Solar for emergencies

Then there was discussion of solar techniques to handle disruptions of ordinary life. Andrew Beldon, speaking for the organization Solar Boston, discussed the installation in his city of solar-powered evacuation routes. In a disaster that disrupted normal utility operations, solar photovoltaics could power electrical message boards displaying the most up-to-date information from city managers. The information would reach the signs through dedicated fiber optic lines. Solar-powered cameras at intersections could provide city managers real-time information about the condition of traffic. Solar-powered traffic lights could prevent traffic snarls — a potentially life-or-death problem in an evacuation — and solar streetlights with battery storage could provide light at night. 

Andrew McAllister of the California Center for Sustainable Energy, described the role solar could play in providing lighted, powered shelter for San Diego residents during any of the area’s many fires. Bill Young from the Florida Solar Energy Center talked about the role of solar in providing a dry, secure place with lights and refrigeration for food in the event of hurricanes or other utility-disrupting disasters.

What’s next?

But what happens when the initial three-year funding for the Solar America Cities runs out this year?

The idea, according to DOE SAC program lead Hannah Muller, is to transition to a solar-sophisticated outreach group that will take the lessons from the original 25 cities and apply them to cities nationwide.

Meanwhile, DOE has granted additional funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to many of the original cities to implement a variety of special projects aimed at further facilitating wide-scale commercial deployment of solar technologies.

DOE’s umbrella Solar Market Transformation Program will also continue using national laboratory expertise to solve solar implementation problems in cities across the country.

Sandia team lead Vipin Gupta (6338) in closing urged attendees to stay involved by frequently visiting the DOE Solar America Cities online website ( and interacting via the social networking site known as SAmCIN (Solar America Cities Information Network) that was set up just for them.

 Vipin, who will spend more time with Sandia’s solar “glitter” project (see Lab News, Dec. 18, 2009), also passed the baton to Beth Richards, who will lead Sandia’s upcoming Tiger Team efforts.
Has the tipping point passed, where solar can continue to rise on its own without sinking back into the swamp when unsupported by tax breaks and DOE grants?

“If we knew that,” says Marissa, “we’d be rich and famous.”

Pittsburgh honors Sandia solar team

The city of Pittsburgh has honored Sandia solar researchers for training city staff to install and maintain solar thermal and photovoltaic panels on city facilities.

The formal proclamation, signed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, recognizes the Sandia researchers “who braved sleet, snow, ice, and frigid temperatures to assess buildings and provide solar energy education.”

Marissa Reno and Howard Passell (both 6733) accepted the document on behalf of their team from Jim Sloss, Pittsburgh energy utilities manager, at the third annual Solar America Cities meeting in Salt Lake City on April 13.  Other Sandians honored by Pittsburgh are Geoff Klise (6733), Jeff Zirzow (6339), Jeannette Moore (2734), and Chuck Marken (6734).

“The Sandia researchers were assigned to us by the Department of Energy to provide us with technical assistance, and we wanted to honor them with a little gift,” Sloss told the Lab News.
Pittsburgh is one of 25 cities selected by DOE for its Solar America Cities (SAC) program, which aims to remove the barriers to the growth of solar energy technologies across the US.

The Sandia researchers are part of DOE’s so-called solar Tiger Teams that arrive upon request to solve specific problems, and then return to their respective research institutions.

“The entire Solar America Cities program has been an extremely effective collaboration between the federal government and cities,” says Howard, “intended to quickly and dramatically increase the market penetration of solar technologies.”

“There had not been much solar development in Pittsburgh,” says Marissa, “but as a result of the work the city has done in the SAC program, the list of solar projects and initiatives in Pittsburgh has grown considerably. We hope that Pittsburgh will continue down the path it has started on and continue to grow its solar program.”

Early in the project, city of Pittsburgh staff and the Sandia Tiger Team staff collaborated on a regional conference titled “Solar in Cold, Cloudy Climates” that educated city planners and engineers from cities in the Pittsburgh area on solar approaches appropriate for that region. Later in the project, Pittsburgh facilities staff were trained in installation techniques for solar hot water technologies. They installed one solar hot water system on a Pittsburgh fire station and have plans to install three more on other stations.

 Upcoming training in photovoltaic installation technologies will include an actual installation, with two more planned after that.

A 3-megawatt solar farm is in the planning stage.

 The city is also using SAC funding to construct an interactive solar mapping website that will highlight their solar achievements and share solar information.

And the city is hiring a “solar ambassador” whose work will be dedicated to advancing solar in Pittsburgh. The three-year program, in which approximately $550,000 was shared between the city of Pittsburgh and Sandia, ends in May.