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Modesto councilman’s solar expertise powers Spanish energy project

Modesto City Councilman Brad Hawn is pictured with a large solar panel at his office in Modesto on Thursday afternoon (07-17-08). He has just returned from Spain, where he oversaw a project of installing 2 million square feet of the panels on a General Motors building. Modesto Bee/ Joan Barnett Lee
Modesto City Councilman Brad Hawn is pictured with a large solar panel at his office in Modesto on Thursday afternoon (07-17-08). He has just returned from Spain, where he oversaw a project of installing 2 million square feet of the panels on a General Motors building. Modesto Bee/ Joan Barnett Lee Modesto Bee

Modesto City Councilman Brad Hawn just might balance his carbon footprint this fall when the switch flips on a massive rooftop solar project at a General Motors factory in Zaragoza, Spain.

Sure, Hawn burned plenty of fossil fuels flying to the plant a dozen times in the past year.

But he's one of the engineers who designed a system that will generate 12 megawatts of power from 85,000 solar panels, enough energy to power 4,575 Spanish homes.

GM says it's the world's largest rooftop solar installation, and it's the third Hawn has worked on for GM.

The magnitude of the project hit home for Hawn a week ago when GM unveiled the solar panels at a news conference for European newspapers and international business wire services.

Hawn was there with GM executives from their Spanish and European units, leaders of the Spanish government and the top brass of two environmental companies that will run the rooftop installation.

"I didn't really realize that until I stood back and looked at what we've done," he said. "It probably should've started out with a smaller project."

The Zaragoza installation is different from two Hawn worked on for GM in Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga.

For starters, the Spanish one generates about 12 times as much power as the ones in California.

It's also used differently. Solar energy on the California rooftops powers the GM plants directly.

In Spain, the power goes into a general electrical grid. The Spanish government subsidizes the project by buying power from the installation at an above- market rate, the International Herald Tribune reported.

Clairvoyant Energy and Veolia Environment own the solar panels on the GM factory. They lease the space from the Detroit carmaker.

GM calls the solar installation a key step in reducing its carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming. That's an incentive for the Spanish government, which wants to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

"Our commitment to expanding the usage of renewable energy sources is part of our coordinated global effort to reduce energy, water consumption, waste and carbon dioxide emissions," Elizabeth A. Lowery, a GM vice president, said in a statement.

Hawn doesn't have solar panels on his home. He likes the big industrial projects because he believes they'll demonstrate that solar energy is a realistic choice for businesses.

"I would rather spend time trying some of the larger projects to show solar's a legitimate player, and then the residential market will follow," he said.

Hawn, an engineer at Lio- nakis, a Sacramento-based architecture firm, began working on solar panels about four years ago.

He and his business associates faced a problem in how to place solar panels on roofs without damaging the buildings.

They devised a "fastening sandwich" made of an adhesive and velcro that connect the panels to roofs. They weigh about a pound per square foot.

In Zaragoza, Hawn said, the panels get rolled out like carpet on the factory's roof. They cover 2 million square feet.

His trips to Europe influenced his City Council work, giving him ideas about how to improve Modesto's downtown. One idea he wants to see through is bringing sandwich signs for downtown sidewalks.

Hawn's travel kept him away from a couple of Modesto council meetings, but he participated by phone. Because of the time difference, Hawn cast his votes about 2:30 a.m. in Spain.

Hawn expects his company to continue working on solar projects in Europe, but he might start to scale back his travel.

"I don't know how much I'm going to go over for that," he said. "I think my wife's getting tired of it."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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