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Solar Cells Light Up Alcatraz Prison

Alcatraz Island | Photo credit: John O'Neill

Solar panels on the Cellhouse roof at Alcatraz | Photo: National Park Service

100% Renewable Energy Goal Achieved:

40%-100% Solar Powered Alcatraz



San Francisco, California, USA



Alcatraz was a renowned prison for 75 years on an island in San Francisco Bay, during which it was powered by diesel brought in by ferry over the bay. Now a historic landmark, the U.S. federal government set out to power Alcatraz with solar starting in 1995. 


The U.S. Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) began by bringing in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to determine the feasibility of powering Alcatraz with solar panels and to create preliminary plans for doing so. Next, FEMP and the National Park Service contracted with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD)  to install photovoltaics on the New Industries Building at Alcatraz and to sell power back to the National Park Service. Ensuring that the project was good for the bottom line, as well as the environment, SMUD agreed to sell the solar power for a penny less than what the federal government was paying for diesel at Alcatraz. 


The location of the project was changed to the Cellhouse, when a historic landmarks group protested that the original plan would be too visible to the 1.4 million tourists who visit every year and would destroy the character of the site. As NREL colorfully reports, the group was concerned that the panels "could be seen by tourists from an exit door in the exercise yard — and that would mar the historic nature of the New Industries Building, where Al Capone once worked a sewing machine, and Machine Gun Kelly did the laundry."
The project suffered inertia until it got a final push from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), commonly known as the stimulus bill, which President Obama signed early in 2009. Under ARRA, "shovel ready" renewable energy projects were eligible for federal funding, and $3.6 million was awarded to the Alcatraz solar project. 


Now 1300 solar panels, totaling 307 kilowatts, sit atop the Cellhouse building. It is backed up by a large battery system that is hidden from view. Complimenting the solar project are efficiency upgrades undertaken by the National Park Service, including high efficiency lighting and streamlined operations. According to NREL, the solar installation generates nearly 400,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, reduces carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by approximately 337,000 kilograms annually, and decreases the diesel generator use from 100% to 40%. 


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