Aaron Terrazas/The Hoya Despite rumors to the contrary, photovoltaic panels atop the Intercultural Center remain fully functional, providing 40 percent of the building’s daytime energy.

Each of Georgetown’s buildings tend to reflect the architecture from their period, from the Gothic style of Healy and White-Gravenor to the modern design of Lauinger. But the Bunn Intercultural Center may be the most contemporary because of its most prominent feature – its solar panels.

Located on the sloped roof of the south side of the building, ICC’s array of solar, or photovoltaic, panels encompasses a 3318 square-meter area, and, when in peak operation, provide over one-third of the energy to ICC, according to Victor Podbielski, the director of facilities.

According to Podbielski, the panels have been operational each day since their installation, aside from minor malfunctions over the years, and they continue to generate energy and serve as an example of an effective use of alternative energy.

“We felt like we could act as an impetus for the industry,” Podbielski said of the original installation of the solar panels on ICC in the summer of 1984.

University Architect Alan Brangman said that the large array – which, when first built was one of the largest photovoltaic arrays in the world – is comprised of 4,464 separate two-foot-by-four-foot modules. These solar cells operate by converting light from the sun’s rays into waves of energy that look similar to sine curves. Each string can generate up to 4.8 amps of DC power, which is then converted to AC power, which is used to power the building.

On a given day, Podbielski said, ICC uses approximately 720 kilowatts of energy, and the panels work in conjunction with the building’s conventional sources of power (supplied by an electricity grid that reaches into the D.C. region) to supply an average of 240 kilowatts of energy per day. The system starts by itself each morning when the sun rises, and shuts itself off at twilight as the sun wanes.

Under peak conditions, which occur during a cool, sunny day (the panels lose efficiency if their solar cells get too hot), they have the potential to generate 300 kilowatts of energy, yet their aging, as well as the effects of snow, shadows or other obstructions on the panels diminishes their efficiency over time.

And contrary to the rumors, Podbielski said that the solar panels do not interfere with the flight patterns of planes flying overhead in any way. He said that when the panels were being installed, university officials raised concerns that the smooth surface of the modules’ glass would cause a glare that would debilitate pilots on their way to nearby Reagan National Airport.

To address this concern, the panels were installed with the bumpier, textured side of the glass out, a precautionary move that also detracts from their efficiency. But no pilots have ever raised concerns about the panels.

“Nobody’s ever complained that [the glass on the panels] looked like a mirror, but then again, we’ve never had the smooth side out,” Podbielski said.

The solar panels are a product of a federally-funded initiative coming out of the energy crisis of the 1970s, a time when the federal government was subsidizing alternative forms of energy with a “gold-rush-type mentality,” according to Nathan Hultman, an assistant professor in the science, technology and international affairs program in the SFS.

Both Hultman and Podbielski described how national uncertainty over world oil prices, following the OPEC embargo of 1973, forced the government to explore alternative energy options, including solar energy projects and research.

At Georgetown, the university’s federal relations department partnered with the newly-consolidated U.S. Department of Energy to receive a federal grant that completely funded the construction of ICC’s photovoltaic panels, which, according to Brangman, cost a total of $10 million for the initial installation of the photovoltaic modules and their supporting structure. And so ICC building, which opened in 1982, was built with solar energy in mind.

“Out of the several projects that were developed, [Georgetown’s project] is the only one that worked, because people at Georgetown wanted to make it work,” Podbielski said.

Yet the future of solar energy and other such ventures at Georgetown may have gotten dimmer over the years.

According to Podbielski, solar energy is not highly cost-effective, especially in urban areas such as Washington, D.C., where large utilities can provide electric energy at far lower costs, and solar energy endeavors come with high installation costs for a relatively smaller amount of power and financial savings.

“The amount of money that [having the solar panels] saves the university would never justify the expense of installing it for economic reasons,” he said.

Timothy Beach, an associate professor of geography and geoscience in the STIA department and the director of the Center for the Environment, said that he felt solar energy still has a very viable future.

While solar energy is not currently the most cost-effective option, he said that all new forms of energy have relied on initial government subsidies to grow and become mainstream in the early stages of their development.

“I see [subsidizing energy] as a broader level of trying to subsidize a new technology,” he said.

He added that, over the years, government and Congressional policies have put varying amounts of money and effort into studying the efficiency and costs of alternative energy forms.

While Beach said that all forms of energy create some pollution, he said that he felt solar energy was more sustainable in the long term than those using oil and natural gas, which contributes to global warming and pollution. According to Beach, solar energy does not produce any carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide, and it also does not produce ozone, which he said was one of the worst air pollutants in the Washington, D.C., area.

Other concerns posed by solar energy fall less in the economic domain.

Because many photovoltaic arrays require large, open rooftops in order to maximize direct contact with the sun, aesthetic concerns about the appearance of buildings that also hinder the development of more solar-powered buildings, especially on college campuses like Georgetown.

“With the present desire to have a more collegial appearance, you’re not likely to see more solar panels,” Podbielski said. He added that the modernistic appearance of ICC has been criticized by some architects for not conforming in appearance to other buildings on campus.

Nonetheless, other influences affect the architectural feasibility of buildings with solar panels. According to Brangman, the roof of a building with solar panels should be oriented in a way that the panels can be kept at a constant angle toward the sun, although this doesn’t imply that the roof must be sloped like the roof of ICC; this is dependant on how the building is designed.

“I don’t know that I would agree that current trends in architecture preclude solar installations. If more clients demanded solar power, then the architecture would reflect that,” he said in an e-mail.

Hultman also spoke of “green design,” whereby architects and urban planners are encouraged to integrate an alternative-energy mindset into the designs of preexisting or future buildings. He added that solar energy could be a particularly advantageous option in states like California, where the high amounts of sun year-round would allow photovoltaic modules to operate at peak capacity more often, and the use of solar energy would also reduce smog caused from burning fossil fuels.

Lucy Sommo (COL ’06) and Sasha Kinney (SFS ’06), board members of Eco-Action, have met with Podbielski and other Georgetown administrators on several occasions to discuss the prospects for continued use of alternative energy resources at Georgetown.

According to Sommo, the administration has been supportive of their efforts and concerns, yet is restrained by more practical considerations, including finances.

“They are environmentally minded, just restricted,” Sommo said.

Sommo and Kinney both said that they understood the other factors faced by the university, yet they also said that they felt the long-term environmental benefits could outweigh its initial expenses.

Other alternative energy forms, including wind energy present viable options for Georgetown and other like college settings.

“For Georgetown specifically, wind energy seems to be a form of energy that we should further explore,” Kinney said.

According to Hultman, great improvements in the effectiveness and practicality of wind energy have been made over the years, and in terms of cost, it is becoming competitive with that of fossil fuels.

Solar energy technology has also come a long way since the installation of ICC’s panels. Hultman said that although operating a solar energy system still costs more per kilowatt than the most inexpensive fossil fuel equivalent, installation costs continue to drop, and efficiency continues to rise, so solar energy is becoming more economical as an alternative to fossil fuels.

Beach concurred. “Solar and wind energy has tremendous potential,” he said.

As for Georgetown, Beach said that he hoped the university could commit to getting a certain percentage of their energy from sustainable sources.

“When government isn’t helping with subsidizing young industries like this, then private groups have to do more,” he said.

“I believe universities should be leading in this area. They have a responsibility to demonstrate the potential” Hultman said.

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