SALEM, Va. (AP) — The largest solar energy project in Southwest Virginia is nearing completion at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem.
On what used to be a landfill at the eastern edge of the hospital campus, 6,000 solar panels are being installed.
The panels will convert sunlight into as much as 1,620 kilowatts of electricity — enough to provide about 10 percent of the power to the sprawling VA complex.
Officials expect the system to be operational by late October or early November, Salem VA spokeswoman Ann Benois said.
The $5 million project is part of an initiative by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to rely more on solar energy at veterans hospitals across the country.
Because the six-acre field of solar panels sits atop a capped landfill, special environmental precautions were taken.
The panels are mounted on a "floating system" of supports that does not penetrate the ground below them, the Salem VA said in a news release.
Facing south, the panels are positioned on a slope to catch the most energy the sun can provide. And their ground-level location — as opposed to the rooftops used for most solar projects — is expected make maintenance easier.
The scale of the project dwarfs other solar energy projects in the region, including a 450-kilowatt system atop two buildings at Washington and Lee University and a 103-kilowatt system that sits on the roof of a Virginia Tech parking garage.
Once the Salem VA system is operational, it will be the second largest such project in Virginia, according to Ken Jurman , who monitors solar installations for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy .
However, the Salem system will soon be surpassed at another VA hospital in Alexandria, where a 1,955-kilowatt system is under construction.
The state's largest solar project is a 2,100-kilowatt system at the Norfolk Naval Station, Jurman said.
Nationwide, the Department of Veterans Affairs is aiming to increase its renewable energy use to 15 percent of its total power consumption this year.
"Unlike the use of coal as a source of energy, the use of solar technology for electricity produces no greenhouse gas emissions," said Robert Rossbacher, energy engineer at the Salem VA.
In addition to easing the hospital's carbon footprint, the project is expected to save about $160,000 a year in the cost of providing power to a campus that includes more than 20 buildings that are connected by enclosed walkways.
The solar field, which can easily be seen from Peters Creek Road near Brandon Avenue, is just one of several ongoing construction projects at the hospital.
A new inpatient psychiatric building is nearing completion, as is a $3.5 million water tower.
The tower will hold a reserve supply of 1.25 million gallons of water. It is part of an emergency preparedness program that will allow the hospital to operate independently for a short time period — four days or so — should the need arise.
Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com