CA to put solar panels on Amherst House, eyes alternative energy opportunities

The Columbia Association is working on its second solar panel project of the year — slightly more than 100 solar panels to be installed on the roof of Amherst House in Kings Contrivance — as the organization makes a bigger push to use alternative forms of energy.

Earlier this year, CA installed 24 solar panels on 12 posts off Trotter Road in River Hill to power the nearby CA pool and the village's Meeting Room. The array, which cost CA slightly less than $35,000, is visible from Route 32.

The Amherst House project is larger and more expensive than the one at River Hill. It will cost CA around $100,000 to pay the contractor who will provide and install the panels, according to Dennis Mattey, CA's director of construction.

The solar panels are expected to provide about 75 percent of the energy needs for Amherst House, a facility managed by the Kings Contrivance Community Association that is used for community functions and rented out for special events.

"Amherst House works out perfectly for this project because we just replaced this roof," Mattey said. He said the panels, which have a 25-year life span, should age along with the roof.

The contract has been awarded, Mattey said, and the panels should be up and operational before the end of the year.

CA Board of Directors chairwoman and Kings Contrivance representative Shari Zaret said she is excited about the solar panels going up at Amherst House.

"I think we're going to see long-term returns as far as the cost of energy is concerned," she said.

Though the Amherst House project is the only one in the works at the moment, CA officials said they are looking for other opportunities to use alternative energy.

"No facility is being ruled out for some sort of alternative energy," Chick Rhodehamel, CA's vice president of environmental management, said in emailed comments.

CA is not only looking at solar projects, he said, but geothermal and wind power, too.

Although CA does not currently have any wind-powered facilities, it does use a geothermal heating and cooling system at Fairway Hills Golf Club.

"It's called a ground source heat pump," Mattey explained. "Basically it uses the constant temperature in the ground to provide a source of heat in the winter or to dump heat in the summer."

Mattey said he expects more projects will be identified and started once CA brings on its new energy manager in about a month.

Added Rhodehamel: "We're very interested in alternative energy applications wherever we can. With 3,600 acres of open space and more than 40 facilities, there are certainly opportunities for CA to utilize its resources and reduce our fossil footprint."

'Right thing to do'

CA President Phil Nelson said using alternative energy makes sense.

"We looked at our overall carbon footprint and saw the effect that just one company has, with cars, with buildings, with chlorine, with all the things that we use," Nelson said in emailed comments. "It came down to a point that we're going to look at alternative energy, we're going to look at renewable energy, we're going to look at all sorts of sources.

"It's not so much that we get a great rate of return on our investment — it takes a longer time — but it's just the right thing to do," he added. "We just want to reduce our carbon footprint and the size of the footprint we generate. By doing that, it helps the environment."

Though not immediately cost-efficient, Nelson said using alternative energy fits into the four phases of sustainability CA bases its budget on: environmental, societal, relational and economic.

CA's Board of Directors has made reducing CA's carbon footprint one of its goals as well, Zaret said, noting the environmental benefits are coupled with long-term energy savings.

"I think it's a win-win all the way around and we're going to see that with a lot more projects in Columbia," she said.

Nelson said the River Hill and Amherst House solar projects are being used essentially as test runs to gauge how CA could make some of its other facilities more energy-efficient.

In the meantime, CA has taken other steps toward using less energy at its facilities, such as installing light sensors that turn the lights on and off based on when people are in the room and using time-controlled thermostats that automatically adjust the temperature based on times set for when people are in the building.

As CA continues to retrofit its older facilities, Zaret said the organization will be looking to take advantage of new technologies.

"These new technologies are changing and increasing all the time," she said, "so we are keeping an eye out for the very best technologies we can use."

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