The theme was “optimism” on a rainy afternoon as Carilion New River Valley Medical Center inaugurated its recently installed 4,000-panel solar tracking system, the first to be used by a hospital in Virginia in a green energy shift that may improve community health, economic development and protect rural health services.
Governor Ralph Northam, Virginia House Delegate Chris Hurst, a representative of Tim Kaine, Virginia State Senator John Edwards, hospital officials and the president of the solar developer, Secure Futures were assembled to announce the event.
Reminding the crowd at the clinic that April showers brings May flowers, Carilion’s CFO, Don Halliwill, led the celebration of the collaborative project as they gathered to officially “flip the switch” of an enormous cardboard light switch.
“The solar field is an investment that we’re making today for a return on that investment,” he said. And the return we’ll get, the May flowers, in the future is the positive impact it will have on the environment.”
Decreasing the clinic’s impact on the environment, and improving physical, economic and environmental health of the community decrease health care costs overall, he said.
Halliwill said that Northam, a former doctor, is familiar with the link between a healthy environment and a healthy community.
“Our administration’s focus is to put Virginia in the economic development driver’s seat and make all jobs good jobs,” Northam said.
Linking community health to economic health, the governor said that access to affordable, quality healthcare encourages businesses to come to a rural Virginia community, emphasizing the importance of supporting rural hospitals providing healthcare and jobs.
“The research and development that has gone on through the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, that vision has brought talent to the area,” Northam said. “And when we attract talent, and we’re able to do the research and development, we have grand opportunities and what comes with grand opportunities is business opportunities.”
Virginia’s goal is to have at least 30 percent of its energy generated by renewable energy, he said.
The hospital’s solar array first became operational in Dec. 2017 and, even in a misty gloom, the system was said to be producing at 18 percent capacity according to a solar company representatives at the event.
The solar panel system was funded, built and installed by solar energy developer, Secure Futures LLC, who will also maintain the panels for its lifespan with a monthly fee from Carilion.
The developer sourced grants from multiple outlets, including the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program, which provides funds to agricultural producers and small businesses in eligible areas like the peri-urban hospitals for renewable energy projects like solar, wind, geothermal, and wave energy.
The panel system was made in Oregon and is “single-axis,” that is, it’s made to tip east to west as the sun goes over.
The system is projected to save $1.5 million over its 20-year life span for Carilion while offsetting 3.2 million pounds of carbon annually for everyone else.
Removing three million pounds of carbon a year from the atmosphere is like taking about 200 cars off the road or planting 48,000 trees or according to solar energy research.
Dr. Tony Smith, CEO and president of Secure Futures, also spoke of optimism and bright futures.
“In our industry we have to be optimists,” he said. “So we’re either in a solar energy production day or a solar panel washing day. This array gives Carilion Clinic the opportunity to further invest in patient care while simultaneously being good stewards of the environment and boosting the local economy.”
Floyd Childress, owner of Childress Farms, Inc. and owner of the seven acres on which the panels now stand, was recognized in the audience and thanked as a critical participant to the project.
“I never like to see land taken out of food production,” he said. “But a farm converts solar energy to food, now solar energy is converted to keeping people healthy.”
Extending the ecological benefit of the panels even further, in the summer, it is planned that sheep will graze among them removing the need to mow.
Overall, the system will generate 17 percent of the hospital’s annual energy needs “shaving” off energy demand during the peak now, and potentially storing solar energy in a battery unit to help reduce “peak load demand by 32 percent annually” according to the hospital.
With battery storage, the system represents the first use of clean energy for backup power by a hospital in the state serving as an on-site electrical grid. Coupling power and storage in a “nano-grid” will “power essential hospital functions in the event of a blackout” said Carilion.