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Wayne National Forest now ‘greener’

NELSONVILLE — Thanks to funding from the American Recovery Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the Wayne National Forest has reached a new milestone with its three-year-old solar energy program.

On Aug. 3, 2009, construction crews finished installing 252 new solar panels on the roof of the Forest’s headquarters building near Nelsonville — a direct result of federal stimulus money.

The expanded system with a total of 302 solar panels is expected to generate about 30 to 34 percent of the building’s electricity during peak production months.

An estimated 15 to 20 percent of the facilities energy needs will be provided by the sun annually.

In March, the Wayne National Forest Solar Energy Program received funding from ARRA for expanding its existing solar energy system. In turn, the U.S. Forest Service awarded a contract for $398,000 to Ohio-based D. J. Group, Inc. of Beverly, Ohio. The general contractor for the solar project, D. J. Group is a Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business.

The company sub-contracted with another Ohio-based business, Third Sun Solar & Wind Power, Ltd., of Athens, to do the actual installation of the 59,000-watt, solar panel system.

The solar project not only improved the headquarters building, but also provided employment, which was a boost to the local economy.

“In addition to our regular crew, we were able to pull some people off the unemployment lines to help with this job,” said Rob Phillips, project manager with Third Sun. Phillips mentioned that at least three electricians plus office staff were hired.

In addition to the dollars-and-cents side of solar energy, Phillips also sees the personal benefits.

“The older I get, the more I think about the environment and the impact humans are having upon it,” Phillips said. “My wife and I own a small farm, have horses and I like to hunt and fish. Whatever I can do to help the environment and pass along those same outdoor opportunities I’ve had to my kids and grandkids, I want to be involved with it.”

Solar power is nothing new to the Wayne. It began its solar energy program in 2007 with the installation of a 20-panel solar energy system at a cost of $33,000.

In 2008, it added 30 more solar panels at a cost of $35,000. This 50-panel system generated about seven percent of the headquarters building’s energy needs during peak production months.

“In the past, we’ve spent about $31,000 annually on electricity for our headquarters building,” said Steve Marchi, Wayne National Forest engineer. “That figure is now predicted to drop to approximately $24,000 to $26,000 at 2007 energy cost of 9.4 cents per-kilowatt-hour.”

And, there are other environmental advantages to solar energy.

It’s estimated that the additional solar panels installed at the Forest’s headquarters building will reduce 144,745 pounds or 72 tons of carbon dioxide, eliminating approximately 28 tons of coal that would have been burned to generate an equivalent amount of electricity.

The new solar energy system may generate enough electricity to sell some back to the electric company.

In August, the Forest signed a contract with American Electric Power (AEP), designating the Forest as a small energy producer.

During peak periods of production, the electric meter could actually spin backwards, feeding solar energy back to the electric grid.

As the Forest looks into the future for even more cost saving measures, planners are looking inside and out at existing features that could be upgraded to reduce the headquarters need for electricity.

The headquarters’ heating and cooling system is on a list of potential upgrades as funding becomes available.

The system, now nine years old, consumes a lot of electricity. Other plans include converting some low power lighting to light-emitting diode, or better known as LED.

The new solar panels will not only help offset the building’s energy costs, but will also be used as a teaching tool to educate others about the advantages of solar-powered technology.

Public tours of the new solar energy system are currently being offered.

The tour includes a look at the electronic kiosk in the headquarters’ lobby providing up-to-the-minute readouts to visitors of how much electricity is being generated by the three-foot by five-foot solar panels.

In October, the facility will be a destination for the public to tour as the Buckeye state kicks off its annual Solar Tour.

As of August, the Forest had received $7.2 million of ARRA funds for projects.

The projects, which range from repairs of earthen dams to replacement of road signage, have created many private-sector jobs.

Ohio’s only national forest, the Wayne encompasses more than 240,000 acres in the southeastern part of the state.

Woodland wildlife abounds in the mainly oak-hickory habitat, including such animals as white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, forest songbirds, birds of prey, and reptiles and amphibians.