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Whitworth tapping into sun’s power

University’s solar panel project already exceeding projections

The future of renewable energy is bright at Whitworth University.

On the roof of the Whitworth University Aquatics Center, 300 solar panels are transforming Inland Northwest sunshine into energy for the university’s buildings.

It’s the largest installation of its kind on Avista’s power grid, and it’s expected to save Whitworth about $6,000 a year in energy costs, said Mark Gibson, president of Western Renewable Energy, the developer of the project.

Western Renewable Energy believes the grid will generate about 80 megawatts annually, but that’s a conservative estimate, Gibson said. Since the panels began operating in late February, they’ve exceeded production estimates, he said.

Whitworth Facilities Services Director Chris Eichorst said the building is the ideal location for a solar project.

“It’s tall, it’s got a flat roof and it has no shade or anything,” Eichorst said. “It was the optimal building to go on.”

The power won’t be used on the rest of the Avista grid, but Gibson said it’s offsetting the energy of one small residence hall. There are 169 solar installations on the grid, said Avista spokeswoman Laurine Jue, but most are small installations at private residences.

Gibson said Coeur d’Alene-based Western Renewable focuses on producing for individual companies and organizations like Whitworth.

“We think the broadest reach for sustainability is at the consumer level,” Gibson said.

Whitworth partnered with a private investor to pay for the project. The investor, who asked to remain anonymous, will receive the tax incentives from the project while Whitworth receives the energy savings. Whitworth, as a nonprofit organization, doesn’t qualify for tax incentives from developing renewable energy.

“It’s very generous,” said Brian Benzel, Whitworth’s vice president for finance and administration. “It’s also a business deal. It’s a coordination of interests that works out very well.”

Whitworth spent about $95,000 on the panels. The project will pay for itself in about eight years.

“The key is that it needs to be affordable,” Gibson said. “What we’ve been able to do is bring affordability to, in this case, the university.”

Whitworth has joined other colleges and universities in pledging to reduce its carbon footprint, including recycling print cartridges, replacing gasoline vehicles with electric trucks and purchasing recycled furniture for dorm rooms.

“We’re committed to doing our part,” Eichorst said.