Solar Case Study

The fragile Potomac Watershed – stretching from southern Pennsylvania to Virginia and encompassing parts of West Virginia and Washington, D.C. – is 54.6 percent forest and home to 6.1 million people. Its preservation has been a cause célèbre since water pollution levels killed thousands of fish and closed the river down for recreational uses like swimming and boating. By 1951, the venerable Washington Post called the Potomac River an open sewer. Conservation and cleanup efforts have been regular events for the watershed’s residents ever since, and educating current and future generations is the key to protecting the area from unnecessary harm.

To further the watershed’s  cause, The Alice Ferguson Foundation (AFF) in Accokeek, Md., an environmental nonprofit established in 1954, creates educational programs for students, educators, government agencies and other critical stakeholders throughout the Potomac Watershed to enhance understanding about its ecosystem. In 2013, the foundation embarked on a quest to prove a net-zero water, net-zero energy, zero-waste and carbon-neutral facility was not only possible but preferable to traditional buildings. 

That dream became the Environmental Education Center, located on the foundation’s Hard Bargain Farm Environmental Center. The Potomac Watershed Study Center will house students and has a day-use educational building, two sleeping cabins and an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-accessible wetland boardwalk.

Part of the solution was to place 47.9 kW solar array on the building’s roof to offset some of its energy usage, but the foundation needed to find a solar installation company that could get the project done on time and under budget.

The Challenges 

When the foundation first approached Rockville, Md.-based Standard Solar to participate in the process, it explained it wanted to leapfrog the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum standards for sustainability to reach those of the Living Building Challenge, a designation only seven buildings in the world currently have achieved. 

To be certified as a living building, seven categories must be met: place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity and beauty.

“The Living Building Challenge standards are still incredibly new to most of us, even though they’ve been around for a while,” says Lori Arguelles, executive director of The Alice Ferguson Foundation. “So it’s not easy to find design teams that understand how to meet them. When you find a company that is able to navigate them effectively, it’s a great accomplishment.”

So the challenge for engineers was this: Create a solar array large enough to power the building and its activities, but make it attractive enough to avoid spoiling the natural beauty of the building and its bucolic surroundings. Daunting though it was, the team knew it was up to the task – and enthusiastically embraced the challenge. 

The Solution

The team studied and dissected the requirements of the Living Building Challenge so the array would help – not hurt – AFF’s attempts to acquire this prized designation. The resulting 47.9 kW system blends seamlessly into the location and powers 100 percent of the building’s energy needs without emitting any harmful gases.

The 174-panel installation produces 63,509 MWh of electricity a year. Its net-zero system not only produces no CO2, but it also produces enough energy to equate to 31,400 pounds of trash taken out of landfills, 4,284 gallons of oil burned and 1,825 propane cylinders used for home barbecue. 

Combined with the building’s other environmentally friendly features – net-zero water use, nontoxic building materials, etc. – the Environmental Education Building provides a model for other watershed businesses to mimic.

The Results

Now that construction of the center is completed, the foundation must prove it meets all of the Living Building Challenge requirements for one year – which Arguelles confirms it is on track to do by next October.  

The center will enhance the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) educational opportunities at the site. An online-based dashboard will provide real-time building performance to engage not only with its students, but other watershed residents as well.

“I recently read that we are quickly reaching the point of no return on climate change,” Arguelles says. “Part of the goal of the Living Building Challenge is to contribute to making our ecosystems healthier and maximize the benefits to a building’s occupants. We hope our educational center becomes an example for others to follow, and we’re proud to have a solar array as part of our energy-educational mix.” 

TONY CLIFFORD is the CEO of Standard Solar.

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