Construction underway on hospital solar farm

Brett Berntsen

FARMINGTON — After years of planning and an initial denial by the city of Farmington, construction is underway on a solar farm near the San Juan Regional Medical Center.

Concrete foundations await the installation of solar panels at the site of the San Juan Regional Medical Center’s solar farm. The special anchoring system will be the largest of its kind in the world.

Doug Frary, the hospital’s vice president of professional and support services, said crews have completed about 30 percent of the project and are on schedule to finish installing the 6,000 solar panels in September. Frary estimates the array will fulfill 25 percent of the hospital’s daily energy needs, providing savings of up to $400,000 per year.

The hospital starting eyeing a solar project in 2004, but Frary said the price of materials then trumped any savings in electricity costs. Now that solar panels have become cheaper and more efficient, Frary said the $4 million project could pay for itself within 10 years.

The hospital sought a zoning change in April to begin construction, but the City Council initially denied the proposal. Councilors who voted against the request said the industrial-scale array was too close to downtown. That sparked criticism from renewable energy advocates and the possibility of legal action from the hospital. After taking another look at the 12.3-acre plot of land — bordered by warehouses and a wastewater treatment plant — the council walked back its decision May 10.

Frary said the hospital and the city have continued to work together despite the disagreement.

“We’ve been keeping the city updated on progress with construction,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any hard feelings.”

The hospital has contracted with the Albuquerque-based firm Affordable Solar to construct the project. Matt Kyriakos, the company's director of commercial sales, said once it is completed, the solar farm will be the largest of its kind in the world. While most arrays are anchored with a steel beam driven into the ground, the hospital’s site sits on top of an area containing loose rock, or cobble. This unstable base requires a ballast system, which uses heavy concrete blocks to secure the long rows of panels.

The site of the San Jun Regional Medical Center solar farm is pictured. The location was the subject of debate by the Farmington City Council.

“When they panels are installed, they essentially become a giant sail,” Kyriakos said. “This keeps them grounded.”

He said the nearly 1,000 concrete forms will dwarf the world's current largest ballast system located in Hawaii. While the mechanics aren't particularly revolutionary, Kyriakos said the project will prove that a large solar array can function in various landscapes.

“This brings more areas into play,” he said. “There are lots of sites that would be good for solar but aren’t used because they have cobble."

Kyriakos said local companies have provided most of the labor and resources to build the foundations. With much of the groundwork completed, he said the final stages of construction should proceed quickly. If the current schedule holds, crews should finish just in time for peak solar season.

“Believe it or not, in the heat of summer, the panels don’t perform as well,” he said.

He said a 350-watt panel operating in 100-degree weather may only produce 290 watts. By commencing operations in the fall, the hospital will enjoy maximum yields right away.

“The shoulder months are typically the best," Kyriakos said. "They’ll see really good production in September, October and November."

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.