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Covington using solar power for water, electricity

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

COVINGTON -- The sun's energy is now being used to heat water at Covington City Hall, thanks to a solar water heating system recently installed and largely funded through stimulus dollars.

The system will remove the need for at least one water heater in the building, and while it will save money, it is largely intended for educational and demonstration purposes. In the next few weeks, a photovoltaic system for solar electric generation will also be installed and will supply a small amount of power for City Hall.

"I believe that solar, especially as future generations of equipment are developed, will play a part in America's energy future," said Covington Utilities Director Bill Meecham. "The city's installations will serve as demonstration facilities and allow us to expand our knowledge of solar applications."

The systems are being paid for through stimulus dollars administered by the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority through Electric Cities of Georgia. ECG received a total of $460,000, and allocated about $40,000 to Covington, according to Spokesman Doug Moore. In addition, the city contributed roughly $13,000, he said.

"This is helping not only the citizens of the cities where they're being installed but helping utilities themselves better understand the benefit of renewable energy," Moore said. "The big concern with any utility is the effect a solar electric system will have on the distribution system. There are safety issues that have to be addressed to make sure the system doesn't create a danger. This is educational to show how there is not only no danger, but they can also benefit."

The water heating system works when sun collectors installed on the rooftop of the building heat up, causing propylene glycol and distilled water to circulate through a stainless steel tank called a heat exchanger, said Gerry Kilgore, owner of Sun Catcher of Atlanta, the company that installed the system. When the collectors reach a temperature of 15 degrees warmer than the bottom of the tank, a sensor control kicks into gear to circulate the fluid until the temperature is the same as the collectors. The tank shuts down at 140 degrees. The system is virtually maintenance-free and has a warranty of 10 years, Kilgore said.

Electric Cities will provide educational material for residents and businesses that want more information on solar power and is encouraging the city to allow local school children to view the system and learn how it works, Moore said.

Meecham said the system will be a good education for city employees who will likely be dealing more and more with solar power in the future.

"This gives us a chance to learn for ourselves how it works. We know the general concepts of this stuff, but I've never worked in reality with it and neither have most people here at the city," he said. The cost savings for the city will be more clear once the system has been up and running for a while, he added.