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Date Posted: September 12, 2014

Solar energy powers Columbia art museum, education

COLUMBIA, SC — A new education exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art brings to light what few visitors likely knew – the facility gets 10 percent of its power from solar panels on its roof.

A group of students from Logan Elementary School excitedly gathered around the new Solar Exploration Station in the museum’s lobby Friday, maneuvering goose-necked lamps to shine on a tiny solar panel. When the panels soak up enough illumination, they turn on the lights on replica art galleries in the middle of the circular station designed by artist Olaf Wegner.

The station is the first major outreach project for SCE&G’s renewable energy effort, and it highlights a solar success story. Four years ago, before the state’s major power companies publicly jumped on the solar bandwagon, the art museum earned a $213,521 federal stimulus grant through the S.C. Energy Office to help pay for the installation of 177 solar panels on its roof.

The energy produced – about 53,000 kilowatt hours annually – covers 10 percent of the museum’s power usage.

“The museum was the first downtown solar customer, and it’s been a huge success,” said Casey Logan, a power quality engineer with SCE&G who has been part of the museum project from the start.

The solar project was detailed on the museum’s website, but most visitors probably didn’t realize the panels were helping power the facility. Now, the project is front-and-center with the Solar Exploration Station next to the ticket desk at the entrance. It was rolled out Aug. 28.

“When children come in, they’re immediately drawn to it,” said Kerry Kuhlkin-Hornsby, director of education for the museum. “It’s light and colorful, and it lights up when you walk up to it. So children absolutely love to walk up to it and light up the galleries and learn more about solar energy.”

The museum also has developed lesson plans that incorporate solar science, for instance placing objects on colored construction paper and leaving them in the sun for several days. The portion of the paper in sunlight fades, leaving a solar-influenced design.

SCE&G officials say the museum’s solar effort is the largest and most successful in the Midlands. The solar tree at Half-Moon Outfitters on Devine Street gets more attention because of the public can see it, but it produces much less energy. The museum effort is similar to one at the Carolina Ice Palace skating rink in North Charleston.

The expansion of solar power in the state in recent years had to clear hurdles, some of which involved power companies’ concerns. In the past year, however, SCE&G has embraced solar, publicizing its partnership with Boeing on a massive solar installation at the aerospace giant’s North Charleston plant. The power company plans to build its own solar farms, including one at its Cayce headquarters, with a goal of installing 20 megawatts of solar energy on its system by 2020.