A Puzzle With Many Pieces

Sustainable Backup Power For A Rural Fire Station

by Donna Davis with Ian Woofenden

The Puzzle

Guemes Island Washington has more than it's fair share of tall beautiful trees. During the winter months, it also has more than its fair share of storms accompanied by high winds. This combination leads to frequent utility power outages, as trees or their limbs fall, breaking power lines. The area is also subject to earthquakes, which have not been a major issue yet, but could potentially lead to lengthy power outages in the future. Several years ago, a ship dragged its anchor in the Guemes Channel, pulling loose the underwater power cable, leaving the entire island with no utility electricity for days.

Approximately 600 year round residents live on the seven square mile island, and the population more than doubles in the summer. A drive-on ferry makes scheduled runs from Anacortes to Guemes, across a mile wide channel.

Guemes Island is served by Skagit FPD 17 which is overseen by three elected commissioners, Jim Dugan, Jack Fees, and Richard Nicolls. Carl Meinzinger is the dedicated chief who heads up the well trained crew of fifteen volunteers. The Guemes Island FD (Fire District) is a non-transport Basic Life Support agency. The Anacortes FD serves as the ALS (Advanced Life Support) transport agency for the island. If the car ferry is not running, there may be a foot passenger ferry available. There is also a heliport, if necessary.

The Guemes Island Fire Station consists of two buildings on one site, which provide office space, a medical equipment room, a training room, and five apparatus bays. It also has space dedicated to the central radio site for the island's Citizens Emergency Response Team. The fire station would be the likely place for emergency medical treatment, should the Island become isolated during a disaster. It seemed unconscionable to allow such critical services to be at the mercy of an undependable power source on an island that may need to be self sufficient for an extended length of time in the event of a disaster! Running a large generator 24 hours a day was not an attractive solution, particularly since there is no guarantee of a re-supply of fuel, should it run out.

The Pieces

During the summer of 2006, Guemes Island was the fortunate recipient of a grant from the American Institute of Architecture's Sustainable Design Assessment Team (SDAT). The SDAT team worked with groups of local residents to focus on areas of concern to assist in planning for sustainable development. One of the focus areas was sustainable energy, which brought together a group of residents who have a passion for this subject.

The Guemes Energy Efficiency Club (GEEC) was formed to address the needs identified during the SDAT workshop. Given our utility power scenario, and the island's reliance on our fire fighters and EMTs in emergency situations, it was an obvious choice for the GEEC's top priority to be a sustainable backup power system for the Guemes Island Fire Station.

Long-time island resident, Ian Woofenden, who is senior editor for Home Power magazine as well as a coordinator for Solar Energy International (SEI) workshops in the Pacific Northwest and Costa Rica, had the experience and contacts in the renewable energy industry to formulate a plan for a grid-tied solar electric back-up system for the fire station. He outlined a realistic budget for the project, after assessing the annual energy used by the fire station, and learning which circuits were critical for a backup power system to support. The system was sized to cover the entire annual electrical power usage of the fire station. Members of GEEC and technical adviser Christopher Freitas from OutBack Power Systems met with the commissioners and fire chief, who unanimously agreed to the proposal. The funds for the project were to come from community donations, not out of the fire district's budget. With commitments from several manufacturers for about $20,000 worth of equipment, the GEEC still needed to raise $40,000 from the community. The fund raising was successful under the leadership of GEEC members Howard Pellett and Bob Anderson. Over 220 generous donors made the project possible.

Ian Woofenden (in the white shirt)) guides a solar panel into place.

Key to the success of the project was Tom Fouts, who is a member of the GEEC as well as one of the firefighters. He has a close friend, Jim Menne, an electrician who volunteered to help with the preliminary work. Tom also happens to own a back hoe and a dump truck, which were indispensable for the ditch digging and other work during the preparation for the installation. Other key players in the project were Rob Schroder, Donna Davis, Mike Jackets, John Meyer, and Kevin Green. Before installing the solar backup system, several preparatory steps were required:

The assessment was done to determine which electrical circuits were considered essential. These circuits included minimum lighting requirements, electricity for critical uses such as vehicle engine block heaters and the CERT radio, apparatus bay doors, compressor, and pumps for well & septic system, etc. Note: The buildings currently rely on electricity for their heat and hot water. It will be a separate project to install a propane heating system and water heater, so the fire station is truly self sufficient.

Each of the two fire station buildings had their own utility service entrance. These were consolidated, so there is now only one service entrance.

Electrical sub panels were installed in each building, and new wiring was installed to bring all essential circuits to these backup panels.

Electrician Rick Bakker of Quality Electric Plus kindly volunteered his services.

It was at about this point when another need became apparent: the roof on the fire station was showing signs of age. In addition, if it was replaced with a SnapLock steel roof, racks for the photovoltaic modules could be mounted with clamps designed for that roof, which would eliminate the need for any roof penetrations. Volunteer firefighter and experienced roofer, Larry Pyke, took responsibility for this part of the project. The fire district covered the cost of the roofing materials, and the labor was provided by the GEEC and other volunteers from the community.

The above work was all accomplished during the past summer. The GEEC members received indispensable help from Rick Bakker of Quality Electric Plus, an electrician from Snohomish Washington, who is interested in renewable energy systems and kindly volunteered his services. The work was completed just in time for the final installation stage.

Putting It All Together

The Guemes Island Fire Station was the subject of the hands-on project for SEI's Photovoltaic Design & Installation workshop that was held in October on Guemes Island.

OutBack Power Systems donated the power center, inverters, and charge controllers. Their software engineer, Darren Emmons, spent the week on Guemes supervising the installation of the OutBack equipment.

The class installed clips, mounting racks, and an 8 KW photovoltaic (PV) array consisting of 45 PV modules on the new roof. The Evergreen Solar modules were manufactured in Massachusetts and Germany, and carry a 25 year warranty on production. They were supplied by AEE Solar in Redway, California at a very generous discount for this community project. Brian Teitlebaum of AEE Solar was very helpful in specifying system components. The array rack was also heavily discounted by the manufacturer, Uni Rac of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The installation of three enormous railroad locomotive batteries (weighing more than 1,300 pounds each!

John Heil from Dyno Battery personally delivered three enormous railroad locomotive batteries (weighing more than 1,300 pounds each!) which will give the fire station more than four days of back up electricity during a utility outage - even if the sun fails to shine. The battery bank is 48 volts nominal, and has a 90 kilowatt-hours total capacity. A battery watering system is being specially designed for the batteries.

Peter Lum of Fat Spaniel flew in with his equipment (below) , which was donated to the project.

Peter Lum of Fat Spanial talks to Donna Davis.

Fat Spaniel's Web server hosts a monitoring system that shows the performance of the system on the Internet. This sort of third party performance monitoring is often required by utilities and government agencies to substantiate the amount of electricity produced by a system in order to qualify for rebates and deductions.

Rick Bakker organized and supervised the electrical work, and helped students run conduit, pull wire, and connect components such as the utility meter bases needed for production metering, bypass switches, etc. On the outside of the building there is a connector for a portable generator that could charge the batteries, should the power be out for several days during an a heavily overcast period that would prevent the PV array from doing the job.

OutBack Power Systems donated the power center, inverters, and charge controllers.

Washington's net metering system allows the fire station to use the utility grid as a big "battery", storing its excess solar energy as a credit on their utility bill, effectively "spinning the meter backwards." When the fire station's solar electric array is generating more than the fire hall is using, the system will "sell energy to the grid". When the buildings are using more than the array is generating (at night and on cloudy days), the fire hall will buy from the grid, using up their credit. Because of generous incentives for renewable energy in the state, the system will generate a cash surplus for the fire station, generating upwards of $1,000 per year in income, in addition to zeroing the station's electricity bill.

Fat Spaniel's monitoring system feeds real-time and summary performance data to LineTime .

The energy pay back period will be brief: within four years, the solar electric array will make all the energy it took to manufacture the equipment. After that, the Guemes Island Fire Department will enjoy 30 to 50 years of clean. locally produced electricity, and a back-up system that will keep the vital functions of the fire department running during utility outages and disasters.



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