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From Van Gogh to your nextdoor neighbor, everyone seems to have a special affinity toward sunflowers. The giant flowers, which resemble the sun itself, adorn public and private gardens across the United States.
But in Muscatine, IA, the employees of Allsteel Inc., a leading designer and manufacturer of office furniture, have become accustomed to a sunflower all their own. While not yellow in color, Allsteel’s sunflowers are something to be seen. Measuring more than 20 feet high and encompassing 150 square feet of Allsteel’s garden, these “solar sunflowers” generate 1 percent of the energy required to power the needs of Allsteel’s 200 members in the company’s headquarters building. This equates to enough energy to power 40 laptop computers, 8 hours a day; or the amount of energy needed to run half of the electricity needed for the average home for a month.
The idea for the solar sunflowers germinated from a meeting held with Allsteel’s Environmental Manager Scott Lesnet and John Root, energy services advisor at Muscatine Power and Water. According to Lesnet, “At Allsteel, sustainability is not just about Allsteel products. It’s the result of good people making responsible choices for the right reasons. For the last 20 years, we’ve been integrating environmental management into our manufacturing processes; and we wanted to extend that commitment to other areas of our business. It was only natural to look at the energy efficiency of our headquarters building.”
Lesnet met with Root to begin brainstorming energy-saving concepts. The two reviewed a number of ideas and decided that the most efficient solution moving forward was with an array of solar panels.
“Reducing energy is one thing; but using alternative forms of renewable energy is a separate concept,” explains Lesnet. “One of our environmental initiatives at Allsteel is promoting alternative forms of energy; the solar panels affirm our commitment.”
The solar sunflowers, installed on Allsteel’s property in October 2004 at a cost of $27,000, will offer 18 years of energy production and provide an average of 300 kWh of energy when the company needs the energy most.
“One of the most unique aspects of the solar array is that, unlike wind generation or other alternative forms of energy, it provides energy at peak times and corresponds to utility needs,” says Root. “For example, the solar array generates the greatest amount of energy during the summer months, when air-conditioners, fans, and other power-guzzling mechanisms are used most often. This is ideal for a company like Allsteel, because it provides energy when traditional prices are at their highest.”
So, how do these giant sunflowers produce that much energy? According to Lesnet, it’s really quite simple: “The solar array receives the natural sunlight on 12 panels on each sunflower. The electricity generated by the array is sent underground directly into a control panel in our building and is dispersed where it is needed most. If the array generates too much energy, it is fed back into the grid until the energy is needed.”
In addition to the energy savings provided by the solar array, the solar sunflowers provide a number of key benefits:
- Maintenance-free. Once installed, the solar sunflowers are self-sufficient and do not require any maintenance on behalf of Allsteel or Muscatine Power and Water.
- Tax credit. The State of Iowa has a 1.5-cent production credit for solar energy, which went into effect in 2004.
- Quick payback. In addition to the tax credit, the payback on the solar array is very short - just 10 years.
- Additional energy conservation tactics. According to Lesnet, the installation of the panels has sparked a number of complementary energy-saving activities at Allsteel, including high-efficiency lighting, large motor review of manufacturing machines, and a company-wide energy analysis of electricity use.