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January 03, 2013

On Florida's Pigeon Key, Solar Development Replaces Dirtier Diesel



An idyllic coral archipelago just 15 miles south of Miami, called the Florida Keys, offers a laidback subtropical lifestyle, with access to rare plant and animals species, some found nowhere else in America—but very few modern amenities. Now, Dublin, Georgia-based Mage Solar, a provider of photovoltaic (PV) solar energy generation solutions, and Salt Service Inc., a Marathon, Florida-based system installer, have deployed a 24-kilowatt (kW) PV array with battery back-up on historic Pigeon Key, to replace the dirtier diesel-fed generators that have provided electricity to date.

The five-acre island of Pigeon Key is located between Key West and Key Largo and is a popular destination for snorkelers with its pristine turquoise waters and fascinating sea life. In sight of US Highway 1, the island is accessible only by waterway or by means of a 2.2 mile pedestrian bridge. Without any connection to the power grid, the island—like many off-grid locations in the Keys—had been dependent, until recently, on diesel generators for electricity. The fuel for these generators typically had to be transported by ferry from the mainland—which had been not only a rather expensive, but also an extremely risky effort environmentally in the delicate ecosystem of the Keys.

Within this sensitive ecosystem, the Pigeon Key Foundation operates a Marine Science Center and an historical museum. Seven of the island’s 12 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places—as reminders of the time during which the island served as camp for up to 400 railroad workers at the beginning of the 20th century. Millionaire entrepreneur Henry Flagler invested a fortune in building the Overseas Railway to connect Key West with Key Largo, an undertaking many of his contemporaries deemed impossible and that was also admiringly dubbed “Eighth Wonder of the World” after its completion in 1912. Now, the island is home to yet another innovative development—the Key’s very first solar array on historical grounds.

Aside from providing a good percentage of the foundation’s energy needs to run the museum and the marine center, the solar panels will reduce CO2-emissions by almost 61 tons annually. It is not a coincidence that 50 percent of the project costs have been covered by a grant from the Tourist Development Committee, which takes the preservation of one of the world’s most unique and beautiful ecosystems rather seriously.

“The installation of solar power was a natural choice,” said Pigeon Key Foundation Chairman Jason Koler. “The diesel system—while revolutionary when it was installed— [had become] an…environmental and financial liability. Our mission is to protect our natural resources and, with this new power source, we will continue to inspire a new generation of environmental stewards.”

Salt Service Inc. is a Marathon, Florida, based solar integrator that designed, developed and executed the demanding installation of the 24 kW array. All 96 of the high-yielding 250-Wp Mage Powertec Plus monocrystalline PV modules had to be transported by boat to the island before they could be mounted onto a custom-built aluminum frame designed to withstand 180 mph wind loads. Constructed as a 1,700-square-foot canopy, the PV array will serve as a picnic area for the thousands of visitors who can now enjoy the stunning setting of the island under shade and shelter.

In addition to the challenges of being in a flood and hurricane zone,—limited to ferry access for construction—this project required coordination among The Pigeon Key Foundation; Monroe County Commissioners and Building Permit personnel; Salt Service, Inc.; The Tourist Development Council; and the Historical Preservation Committee, in addition to Mage Solar and other solar product providers and specialty contractors.

Salt Service president Chuck Meier commented, “Salt is honored to have played a key role in this world-class installation, which will provide functional and educational benefits for many years. It was very rewarding to observe the expression on the faces of those who have been operating and maintaining the generators for years when the solar was turned on and the generator turned off. Everyone enjoyed the overwhelming ‘sound of silence.’”

Mage Solar CEO and president Joe Thomas is equally excited: “Pigeon Key is a place of such breathtaking beauty and I couldn’t be more pleased about the foundation’s decision to go solar. To realize this project was the right choice from an environmental standpoint but also critical in the continued success of the island as a prime tourist destination in one of the world’s most pristine ecosystems. Our thanks and heartfelt congratulations go out to both partners, the Pigeon Key Foundation as well as SALT Service Inc. for a job most wonderfully done.”

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Edited by Brooke Neuman

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