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Soaking up the sun Panels help Windance tap into solar energy

June 11

Windance Sailboards has been a magnet for boardheads looking to harness the power of the wind for 20 years in Hood River. Now, the windsurfing retailer is set to harness the power of another one of nature’s gifts: the sun.

Windance owner Brian Carlstrom has had a solar electric system installed at his Highway 35 business that will generate approximately 40 percent of his building’s electrical power. Two large photovoltaic panels now sit on their own foundations on the south side of Windance. The panels are called “dual axes trackers,” and will track the sun across the sky from morning to night.

“The nice thing about the dual trackers is that, because they’re pointing directly at the sun, there’s no reflection,” said Carlstrom, who was concerned about reflection from solar panels shining on homes on the hillside across from Windance.

The panels have built-in electronic sensors that keep them within one degree of the sun, according to Tod LeFevre, owner of Common Energy, a local company that designed the Windance system. Le Fevre, whose business designs, builds and does consulting work for sustainable building and renewable energy systems, worked with Scott Sorensen Construction and Gorge Electric to install the panels and implement the Windance system, which is the first and largest commercial application of a solar energy system in the Gorge.

“It’s computerized so it has something of a brain,” LeFevre said of the tracking system. On overcast days, the panels will move to the brightest spot in the sky. When the sun sets in the evening, the panels automatically return to the angle recorded from that morning where they first locked onto the sun.

While the timing of Windance’s “going solar” has coincided with soaring gas prices and increasing calls for alternative energy solutions, Carlstrom has long been interested in sustainable energy. He remembers writing a paper in high school about the importance of finding alternative energy sources.

“That was in 1980, and things really haven’t gotten any better,” Carlstrom said. “We’re relying more and more

on fossil fuels. It’s only a matter of time before it crashes.” Carlstrom received tax credits and rebates for implementing the system which will cover about half the cost of installation. Still, Carlstrom said it will take years for the system to pay for itself in energy savings.

“But if you think about it, it’s really the patriotic thing to do,” he said. “You see all these huge SUVs driving around with their patriotic stickers. But they’re just maintaining our reliance on imported oil.” Carlstrom plans to implement other energy-saving measures at Windance, including using energy-efficient lights with timers and increasing the use of natural light in his building.

“These panels will supply 40 percent of our power, but we can knock off a huge percent from just cutting down on wastefulness,” Carlstrom said. The system is connected to an inverter which converts the solar energy into standard utility grade AC power. Any excess power not used by Windance is fed into the regional power grid and credited to the company.

LeFevre said it’s a common misconception that the Northwest does not have enough sunlight to make solar energy viable. “Germany and Japan are the leading countries in solar-powered electric generation,” LeFevre said. “They are at similar latitudes and actually receive less solar radiance than Hood River.”

Carlstrom said many people have asked him why he didn’t install a windmill. He researched that option, but decided against it since the wind tends to be gusty on the rise where Windance sits, and because of the noise that windmills generate.

“Solar energy is as clean as it gets,” Carlstrom said. “There’s no disadvantage to it.” Carlstrom says the move is “a good first step” and hopes the visible location of the trackers will inspire others to explore solar energy or other sustainable energy options.

LeFevre knows the technology and accessibility of sustainable energy is getting better all the time.

“It’s up to us to make the difference,” he said. “Brian gets a big pat on the back for making the move.”

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