L.A. College to Unveil Major Solar Project

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Is it a source of renewable energy, or is it a work of art? In the case of the almost-completed solar array at Occidental College in Los Angeles, the case could be made that it is both.

The $6.8 million installation is set to be up and running—and producing 1 megawatt of solar power. The project has drawn attention because, instead of being installed on rooftops, the majority of the array will be mounted in the ground. It's being billed as Los Angeles' largest ground-mounted solar array.

The installation consists of 4,886 solar panels, two-thirds of which are being put in the ground of a hillside on campus. (The rest will form a shade structure in a parking lot at the college.) Sticking up out of the ground by between 2 and 3 feet, the 20-by-30-foot panels are being arranged in what's called a hysteresis loop, a curvy design that is actually a mathematical expression related to magnetic properties. Los Angeles-based Lettuce Office worked with the Occidental art department to come up with the design. Team members have put much planning into the process, examining the site and design from every angle to make sure it was aesthetically pleasing from any vantage point. They have also been frequently supervising the installation process.

"Our project represents a new paradigm for arrays as architectural objects that, like buildings, are expected to contribute aesthetically to their environment," said Occidental President Jonathan Veitch in a statement.

Once the solar power system is active, it will supply an estimated 11 percent of the college's power needs. It will also cut the campus power bill by about $250,000 annually, according to college estimates. It will be easy to measure those figures—Occidental has also installed new meters throughout the campus in order to track water and electricity use, establish baseline figures and see where energy consumption can be reduced.

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