Showing off: The value of renewable energy demonstration projects

With renewable energy technologies maturing, surely the era of ‘demonstration projects’ has passed? Not if the hearts and minds of the general public are still to be won – Edward Milford looks at some examples in Ohio.

‘We have more PhDs per watt peak installed than any other energy technology,’ Bernard McNelis, the feisty Managing Director of renewable energy installation company IT Power, memorably said at a European PV conference a few years ago. ‘We don’t need any more demonstration projects, we need to get out there and install!’ He was expressing a common frustration for many people professionally engaged in renewable energy. For while demonstration projects are an important step in moving any technology from the laboratory to the market place, once a technology has been proven by some successful projects, then additional demonstration work can appear to be simply a delaying tactic. Just how many demonstration projects does a technology need?

Indeed, conspiracy theorists might voice a rather similar objection: if someone wanted a means of holding back market deployment of a new technology that advocates believe is ready for wide-scale dissemination, what better way than to ask for just a few more demonstration projects? And then a few more; and then a few more. Five, or even 10, years can easily slip by with the incumbent technology securely in place, unchallenged.

Solar arrays at Jacobs Field stadium in Cleveland, Ohio, designed and managed by Doty and Miller Architects doty and miller

The tendency to stick with demonstration projects is often reinforced by the grant-giving process, as most bodies will not give money to technology that should compete in an open market. As a result, there can be a common interest both for grant givers and receivers to argue the need for more demonstration projects.

Bringing renewables to the public

However, a blanket condemnation of renewable energy demonstration projects would be too wide an approach as, crucially, they demonstrate different things to different audiences at different times. Initially, they demonstrate to the technologists working on them. This phase is part of the normal research and scale-up process that any new technology needs to go through. After this, they demonstrate to decision makers – those, particularly in utilities, who may buy the technology, and policy makers, who may be framing legislation to allow a wider uptake of the technology.

Once a technology is relatively mature and proven, as is surely the case for all but the most novel wind, PV and solar thermal applications now, demonstration projects for these two audiences are probably no longer appropriate. However, there is a third and equally important audience to demonstrate to: the general public.

Solar on the Governor’s Residence, Ohio scotte elliott

Most members of the general public have either no interest in energy or only the most passing interest – in which case their thinking is very likely to have been influenced by the sort of throw-away, myth-making comment that is prevalent in the media, such as: ‘There is not enough sunshine here for solar to work,’ or, ‘Wind turbines are really noisy and kill hundreds of birds,’ or, ‘Solar panels take more energy to make than they generate in their lifetimes.’ Well designed, highly visible renewable energy installations can demonstrate to this audience the true potential and actual limitations of the technologies involved and become an important component in making sure that public debate on energy issues – when it does occur – is better informed.

Renewables in the rust belt

Cleveland, in the US state of Ohio, is not a venue that many people would think of as having a great renewable energy potential. For years it had a strong industrial base that provided the area with its identity but came at a cost to the local environment. In June 1969, the then highly polluted river Cuyahoga, which flows through the city, memorably caught fire. This received a lot of publicity, notably through a feature in Time magazine. This was one of the events that spurred the introduction of an initial round of environmental protection legislation in the US, such as the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since then, the traditional manufacturing industry has declined, and Cleveland is now part of the area of the US known as the rust belt as old labour-intensive factories have been abandoned. Instead, the area is looking towards newer, higher-value industries, particularly ones that can then be deployed locally as well. Renewable energy technologies represent just such an obvious growth area.

This is where demonstration projects can still play a very important role. At the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) conference, held in Cleveland in July, four contrasting projects were described. What they have in common is that they convey a particular message to a wide range of the public: ‘Renewable energy works, even in Cleveland.’

Two of the four projects are very publicly visible. One of these is the installation of 8.4 kW of photovoltaics at Jacobs Field, the home of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. During the course of a season, about two and a half million people will pass through Jacobs Field. The panels, supplied by GE, are on a newly erected pavilion on the south-facing upper deck concourse. This gives them good visibility both to visitors to the ballpark and to those on the nearby main roads.

The installation cost about US$100,000. The club received a $10,000 grant and a 30% tax credit. The installation was designed by local architects Doty and Miller and carried out together with Green Energy Ohio with funds also provided by the Cleveland Foundation to help with some of the educational aspects of the project. The club has calculated that the installation will generate enough electricity to power all of the 400 television sets at Jacobs Field. Information about the system and its output is displayed to the public on site, and is also available on-line through a ‘Fat Spaniel’ monitoring system. (You can check the current output at

Speaking at the ASES conference, Bob DiBassio, the club’s Vice-President for Public Relations said that while there were a number of reasons for the project, it was the public relations benefits that were the deciding factor. However, the decision needed support throughout the baseball club. He thinks the initial impetus for any project of this type should come from the operations/facilities side – because without their support it simply won’t happen. The baseball team is now one of the oldest institutions in the Cleveland community and a particularly visible one, living as it does with constant local and national media attention. As a result, the team is happy to be seen to be taking a lead in such clean energy installations, particularly given its location in the north east of the US rather than the sunnier south, where people might expect such initiatives to be more likely. DiBassio also added that at the official inauguration, the discussion was already about where the next PV installation should go, not about the fact that the job was now done, or that they should wait and see.

The second very visible installation is a 225 kW remanufactured Vestas wind turbine and a 31.2 kW photovoltaic array at the Great Lakes Science Center (GLSC) on the shores of Lake Erie. Interstate highway I-90 passes beside the Center and is used by tens of thousands of drivers each day who cannot fail to see the turbine, even if the rather more discrete PV on a canopy sheltering the walkways to the entrance may not be so obvious.

The second very visible installation is a 225 kW remanufactured Vestas wind turbine and a 31.2 kW photovoltaic array at the Great Lakes Science Center e milford

The installations were part of a decision by the GLSC to get back to some advocacy. After a first round or fundraising for the wind turbine, the GLSC only had sufficient to cover a 65 kW turbine. Judging that this would not have sufficient impact, they raised additional funds to cover the larger, re-manufactured turbine and planted it in the most visible spot in the middle of their front lawn. The choice of site was a trade-off between maximum visibility and ensuring that it would be turning at least two-thirds of the time.

The turbine generates about 7% of the electricity needed at the Center. However, as with the PV at Jacobs Field, energy cost saving was not the primary objective. Instead, it is to further the Center’s mission of bringing the interrelationship between science, technology and the environment to life. Following its inauguration in the summer of 2006, the Center commissioned a piece of public art called Shadow and Light, centred on the turbine, which sought to engage the public and demystify wind power.

The 31.2 kW PV array was inaugurated during the ASES conference on 11 July 2007. It is expected to generate approximately 40,000 kWh per year, about 1% of the building’s annual energy needs, or roughly enough energy to provide the lighting for the exhibition galleries at the GLSC. The panels are installed on canopies covering the walkways to the entrance, providing visitors with additional shielding from sun or rain as they approach the GLSC, and these are also seen as valuable architectural enhancements to the building. The PV array also reinforces the GLSC’s mission, and they hope to have other new-energy technologies visible in the coming years.

Less obviously visible is the 3.2 kW PV system installed in September 2004 at the Governor’s Residence in Ohio. A chance meeting between the then Governor’s wife Lady Hope Taft and the Executive Director of Green Energy Ohio (GEO), Bill Spratley, at the 2003 Ohio State Fair led to the enquiry. First Solar, a provider of thin film modules that has a manufacturing base in Ohio, was quick to commit 60 panels for the project. GEO then developed the ‘Green Team’ of local clean energy businesses and volunteers to realize the scheme.

The panels were installed on a south-facing slate roof at the residence, with the slightly complicated task handled by five local installers and a team of engineers, roofers and volunteers. The $90,000 cost of the project was met half by a grant from the Ohio Department of Development, and half by donations of money, goods and services. The performance of this installation can also be monitored on-line at

Plans are now in hand to add some further green additions to one of the smaller buildings at the residence, the Carriage House. A competition has been held and a wide range of green building choices are currently being considered. In January 2007, new Governor Ted Strickland moved into the residence, but this has not affected the plans for the building project. Since installation, over 25,000 people have visited the Governor’s Residence. It is one of the first state governors’ residences to be ‘greened’ (although several others have now followed suit) and, as with the Cleveland Indian’s ballpark, its location in the north of the US has helped it to be seen as an effective example. The profile of the visitors is also significantly different to those at the ballpark or the GLSC. For instance, one highlight at the Governor’s Residence is the heritage garden and its collection of plants native to the state. It attracts numerous groups of retired visitors.

Also less immediately visible is the 60 kW PV system installed at the Adam Joseph Lewis Center (AJLC) at Oberlin College near Cleveland. Originally planned in 1995, the facility was completed in January 2000, with the PV array being installed at the end of that year. The Center is intended to be a ‘building that teaches’ and to provide a hands-on laboratory for students in the areas of ecological design.

While the building has not operated from the start in quite the manner intended, this has both provided an opportunity to learn from the actual performance and to tune the building – and the way it is used – to give it a better performance. It has also allowed the AJLC to fulfil the much wider role envisaged for it, with many different audiences of specialists, students, school parties and the general public visiting to see the wide range of innovative design features it incorporates. Furthermore, it has proved a catalyst for a number of campus-wide energy initiatives. For instance, the college has run a very successful competition called the dorm energy contest, which has led to some significant, user-led energy savings in campus dormitories. As with the other demonstration projects described, the energy performance of both the AJLC and dormitory buildings in the campus can be monitored on the web. Webpage shows the dormitories, for example.

Because they’re worth it?

So what are the main lessons that can be learned from demonstration projects such as those described? When and why should they be considered, and how can you ensure that they work successfully? The first question is, of course, who are they for? What audience(s) are you demonstrating to? The next, related question is what message(s) are you trying to get across? How do the aims of the project meet with your company or organization’s aims?

Scotte Elliott from GEO summarized a number of the benefits of the demonstration projects for participants at the ASES meeting based on GEO’s experience with the Governor’s Residence project. An immediate benefit, naturally, was the publicity received during the commissioning, particularly with a high-profile building. This can continue long after the installation is completed, with tours of the building, the website monitoring and other materials referencing the project.

Elliott also said it has strengthened GEO, with people joining and becoming more involved as a result of the project and with the added, hands-on experience it had given installers, GEO staff and volunteers. This had been publicly recognized as well with a number of awards which, in turn, had all helped to increase the credibility of GEO both as an organization and when arguing in favour of increased use of renewables.

A successful project should also lead on to other projects. The Governor’s residence project led to the project at the Cleveland Indians ballpark and to a solar thermal installation at a fire station in Cleveland. This should be a benefit for all those involved in such a project. GEO carried out a brief survey among the project participants at the Governor’s Residence and found that a majority had direct referrals as a result of the project and had also received publicity from it. Almost all of them had used it as a reference for potential customers and thought it had increased the awareness of PV among the public and thus the number of potential clients.

Two key lessons from this survey were the importance of defined scopes of work and of the presence of a dedicated project manager. These points were echoed by Julie Stone, facilities manager at the Governor’s Residence at the same meeting. She identified the essential first steps of a successful project. First, identify the team to be involved in the project, then develop and agree a statement of intent. From this you can develop a communication that will state simply and clearly what you plan to do, which in turn will attract the supporters you need, whether technical, financial or political. She also outlined the importance of aligning with the media to ensure that the project can establish the right sort of profile for its participants.

While people within the renewable industry know that the overwhelming need is to get out there and install, the wider public – and even many policy makers – have not yet reached this awareness. As these examples show, there is still undoubtedly a role for well placed and well executed demonstration projects to help bring this audience up to speed with what renewable energy can, and can’t, achieve.

Edward Milford is Publisher Emeritus of Renewable Energy World and Chairman of publishers James & James/Earthscan


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