Mesa's Sunshine Acres children's home moves closer to total solar power - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Mesa's Sunshine Acres children's home moves closer to total solar power

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Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2012 10:30 am | Updated: 5:32 pm, Tue Aug 21, 2012.

Sunshine Acres, a children’s home being run entirely off of donations, is one step closer to achieving its goal of being entirely solar, even as it continues to grow.

“It sounds like a fairytale, really,” said Sean Sloan, the executive director of Sunshine Acres. “In 10 years to be totally solar powered, except that we’re seeing it happen.”

The home, which currently serves about 70 children and has 40 buildings on its 110 acres, has plans to expand to 65 buildings to serve 250 kids. To keep expanding utility costs down, the home began looking for ways to develop a master plan for solar installation.

“The project, first of all, is to have zero cost for our power,” Sloan said. “So that our funds go to programs for the children, no to cover overhead. And also, we’re Sunshine Acres; we want to be powered by the sun.”

Electricity costs for Sunshine Acres runs about $115,000 a year, Sloan said. In the next 10 years, they hope to have that cost down to zero, meaning that the facility will generate all of its power needs through solar electricity.

Sage Lopez, an Arizona State University master’s student, began working with the committee charged with ensuring the home’s future utilities needs would be met.

The program I’m in is amazing, but as far a job hunting, there wasn’t a lot of hands on experience, Lopez said.

Sunshine Acres and its solar master plan provided that experience for the professional science master’s degree in the Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization program student.

Lopez installed monitors to provide real-time performance information for the power system.

By working with Salt River Project and the City of Mesa, Lopez was able to help clear the way for the future installation of a “solar loop,” which will distribute power throughout the site.

“I was able to ride the goodwill in a lot of ways,” Lopez said. “A lot of doors open just because it was Sunshine Acres.”

A grant from the Arizona Department of Commerce gave money for the technology to produce 8.2 kilowatts of solar power for Sunshine Acres offices and solar water heaters, Sloan said. TUV Rheinland donated solar modules and SRP donated a 10-kilowatt system through its Earthwise Project to provide power for a dining hall.

It’s a project that Sloan described as “piecemeal,” completed slowly as funding, grants and technology are donated.

In addition, a 300-kilowatt system was installed through a lease agreement with Green Choice Solar company and solar panels that provide 167-kilowatts were donated by Solon, a solar technology manufacturing company.

“We have the choice in five years to buy the system from them, but until then, we can buy our electricity at a lower rate than what SRP has,” Sloan said of the lease agreement.

For that and the completion of the solar master plan, the home has set up a solar fund, which will go toward future investments.

“If someone gave $1,000 to solar, that’s an investment that will have a future return of more than what they gave,” Sloan said.

And while the solar is just one way the children’s home has looked to decrease costs, they’ve also created a more sustainable atmosphere, Lopez said.

“They’ve created a culture of sustainability,” he said.

That includes other improvements, such as updating insulation and installing more energy efficient windows.

For Sloan, it’s about using what they are given in a responsible way.

“Everything we have here is through donation,” Sloan said. “It’s a fairytale and it shouldn’t even work. We are run entirely through donations, but we don’t have any fundraisers.”

As of now, it’s too early to know exactly how much the energy costs have been reduced, but Sloan believes it is a significant jump in the right direction.

“I can’t overstate the value of Sage’s and all of the donors who have made this a possibility,” he said.

Now the next challenge is ahead, and that’s finding someone who is willing to pick up where Lopez left off after graduation.

“There’s still so much more to do,” he said. “It’s not an internship, but there’s still so much real-world experience.”

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