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Sun power rises in West

Jeff Zumwalt, interim director of UNM’s physical plant department, said it took about six weeks for the solar panels to be installed. The array cost $465,000 and will account for almost three-quarters of UNM West’s energy needs.

“We’re hoping it’ll offset 70 percent of the building’s electricity,” Zumwalt said.

Although some would like to see more solar arrays on main campus, Zumwalt said it is actually strategically better to prioritize solar arrays on UNM’s branches.

“Currently, we’ve focused on buildings that are away from the main campus,” he said. “Those buildings typically have a higher utility rate than what we have on the main campus, so the financial benefit is a bit higher.”

However, Zumwalt said the first solar energy producer UNM invested in does reside on main campus at the mechanical engineering building, and it doesn’t primarily consist of the typical grid of solar panels. Rather, it is a solar-thermal facility that was built years ago. After spending some time in disrepair, it was refurbished and put back into service in 2008.

“That system takes heat from the sun and uses it to both heat and cool the building in the summer,” he said.

Zumwalt said future solar arrays on main campus continue to be matters of discussion, but that funding streams are limiting UNM’s solar power movement to one system a year.

“We’ve been discussing the increased solar power initiative on main campus for a long time,” he said. “We’ll eventually get there. Really, the issue is how fast we’re going to get there.”

Diana Gourlay, executive assistant and building manager at UNM West, said the new solar array allows the campus to prepare for what’s down the road.

“As the City of Rio Rancho’s motto is City of Vision, UNM West would like to be an example and leader in the community on what the future of sustainability could look like in our area,” she said.

Bruce Milne, director of UNM’s sustainability studies program, said that UNM is modernizing with the installation of the latest array.

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“It’s keeping with the surprisingly wonderful trend,” he said. “UNM adding solar puts us ahead of the curve and part of the global transition to clean energy.”

Milne said that in 2002 it was predicted that installation of solar power would add one new gigawatt of energy capacity by 2010. The additional capacity actually turned out to be 17 times that, and has grown to be 48 times that amount of energy in 2014.

Additionally, Milne said it will be possible in the future for UNM to profit from excess solar power.

“This could be a revenue generator for UNM if it sells solar power to the grid on weekends when our load is small,” he said.

Although solar energy is an increasingly hot topic today, Zumwalt said the University isn’t primarily motivated by modern trends.

“It’s demonstrating our commitment to sustainability,” he said. “We’d be doing these things whether it was popular or not: it’s just the right thing to do.”

The array is the second installed at a University branch, after Taos. There are four solar array systems on main campus, including on the roofs of the Electrical and Computer Engineering building and the Yale parking garage.

David Lynch is a staff reporter at The Daily Lobo. He can be reached at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.

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