How FRCC Lost its Solar Panels

FRCC’s Westminster campus began construction in 1975. Originally a new location for Community College of Denver’s (CCD) North Campus, it was built at the height of the oil crisis, when energy efficiency and fossil fuel consumption were at the top of everyone’s mind. As a result, the Westminster Campus was built with energy efficiency as a top priority. According to an article published in CCD’s student newspaper, The Solar Times in 1977, the whole building was designed around energy. It was set into the side of a hill to take advantage of the insulative properties of the earth and was built with a (for the time) state of the art energy recovery system, which brought fresh air into the building while retaining 60% of the heat of the exhausted air. Most impressive of all, the Westminster campus was originally built with a massive system of solar-thermal panels, designed to keep the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer. At the time of its construction, it was the largest such system in the entire world, and the only one in the world to be installed in an educational institution.

If you look for it, you’ll find surviving hints to the existence of this system all over the campus. For example, the old logo for FRCC, which is still in place on the front gates and some of the back entrances, shows a sun in the top left corner, shining above the mountains.

The angled glass windows by entrance 3 always looked a bit strange to me, so it’s no wonder that they were originally intended to look like a continuation of the angled solar panels on the roof directly above them. In fact, the panels themselves are actually still there, but they’re covered by metal sheets. Many of the corners on the front of the building have strange angled walls coming off of them. Those angled walls made a lot more sense when they matched the angle of the solar panels on the roof above them. This is also why the building is so long – it was necessary to have enough exposed area for the solar panels. So important were the solar panels to the school’s identity, that it was often referred to as “The Solar Campus,” and before the creation of The Front Page in 1989, the school’s student newspaper was called The Solar Times.

The system worked by pumping a 60:40 mixture of glycol and water through panels that were designed to capture the heat of the sun, and then further heating the fluid through the use of boilers. That heated fluid was used to warm the building in the winter, and it powered absorption coolers which cooled the building in the summer. When it was built, it was projected to save the college nearly $200,000 a year in energy costs. However, according to Andy Dorsey, president of FRCC, while the system may have saved the college some money while it was installed, by the mid-1990s, the system was degraded. The pipes that carried the heating fluid were leaking at their joints, and they were difficult to repair because they were (and still are) three stories up on the ceiling of the college, above the various open-plan seating areas.

And it wasn’t just the panels. By 1996, the entire building’s HVAC system was wildly outdated. According to the March 1996 issue of The Front Page, problems with the HVAC system included, but were not limited to: incorrect zoning, resulting in some rooms being too hot, and others being too cold, increased load from new office equipment, and added rooms that the existing system couldn’t cope with, original pneumatic control systems that were reaching the end of their life, and air from the swimming pool, which recirculated throughout the building, causing the air in certain classrooms to smell like chlorine. That’s right, along with the largest solar-thermal system in the world, we also used to have a heated swimming pool.

Along with the disastrous state of the HVAC system, FRCC itself was in a bit of a desperate shake in the 1990s. Tom Gonzales, president of FRCC at the time, referred to the school as a “dying college” in 1997, when the school was standing in the face of a nearly two million dollar deficit and a 17 percent drop in enrollment. So, when the college got state funding to hire a contractor to fix the HVAC system in 1996, and that contractor recommended replacing the panels with a central boiler, the college wasn’t exactly in a position to negotiate. 

Of the 1,400 panels that were on the roof, only 303 were kept in service after the 1996 renovation. They were used to heat the swimming pool and provide hot water to the school’s taps. Eventually, though, they were all deactivated. Today, the few panels which remain on the front of the school are covered with metal sheets, the swimming pool has been filled in (it’s now the fitness center), and the building is heated and cooled with a traditional natural gas boiler.

So, what kind of impact did this have on the college’s budget and carbon footprint? Not much, or so Dorsey told me. As it turns out, the old solar panels were never really that great. On cold winter days, most of the heat was generated by the auxiliary boiler anyways and whenever it snowed, the panels were basically useless. Because the water-glycol mixture always flowed through a boiler before going to heat the campus, it was pretty much always burning some natural gas. So, with the new more efficient boiler system, Dorsey suspects that we might actually be using less natural gas than we used to be. Of course, that may not be the case for the solar-powered absorption cooling system, which likely worked better in the summer than the heating system did in the winter. Unfortunately, exact data on this is not available.

Even understanding the reasons why they were removed and covered, it really seems a shame that we lost the solar panels (and the pool, but that’s a separate discussion). Unfortunately, functional solar thermal panels are unlikely to ever return to the roof of FRCC Westminster. If solar panels are to return, they’ll take the form of solar photovoltaics, Dorsey told me. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want solar back, though. About ten years ago, the college did an analysis on the prospect of installing solar-PV cells. It wasn’t worth it financially at the time, but with the drop in the cost of solar panels over time, Dorsey says it may be time for another analysis. So it is possible that one day, the sun will rise once again on the Solar Campus.

Leave a Reply