SEARK debuts campus solar array

A project more than four years in the making to bring solar energy to Southeast Arkansas College is now complete.

Campus leaders along with engineers from Bernhard marked the achievement Thursday by flipping a giant switch behind the college's Welcome Center on West 18th Avenue in Pine Bluff.

The $6.7 million installation of a 366-kilowatt solar array will result in a savings of more than $12 million for the college over a 20-year performance contract at $630,000 per year. The goals are to reduce energy, operations and maintenance costs; address deferred maintenance projects; improve campus safety and infrastructure resiliency; and utilize Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds toward improving campus indoor air quality.

"[The project puts] energy back into the system for everybody, not just SEARK," the college's facilities director Jabe Thrower said, adding this was the largest project he's taken on in his role. "I had my hand in pretty much all of it, the HVAC side and all the way down."

It's also one of campus President Steven Bloomberg's signature accomplishments as he winds down a six-year run at the helm of the Pine Bluff college. Bloomberg will step down next week and begin duties as chancellor of the Kern Community College District in California.

About 3,000 LED fixtures have been installed, according to Jimmy Veteto, vice president of development for Bernhard, a New Orleans-based company with an office in Little Rock.

"It's going to equal about $35,000 a year in savings that they would not be paying to their local provider," Veteto said. "It could probably have enough power to provide to this building and this building, but it's going to backfeed the whole campus, especially if we have a whole lot of sunny days."

Chris Kane of Delta Solar, which installed the panels, said the array will account for almost 15% of the total power SEARK uses.

"It's a space-confined area, so if we had more space, we'd be able to offset more," Kane said. "But in the space we were allotted and that they negotiated at Bernhard, we know this will power just under 15 percent of the total power for the campus. This is a big campus."

SEARK leaders began planning to improve the energy infrastructure in the fall of 2019 and selected Bernhard as its energy service company in June 2020. Final contracts were executed in December 2022.

SEARK is the first Arkansas campus Bernhard has serviced to provide solar energy. Bernhard also has an array at Tulane University in New Orleans and what Veteto calls the largest array in health care at a Hackensack, N.J., hospital.

"This is just less than half a meg [megawatt] in size, but the array we're working with in Hackensack, New Jersey, will be 30 to 40 megawatts," Veteto said.

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