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Yerkes Observatory gets current with solar energy system
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Yerkes Observatory gets current with solar energy system

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WILLIAMS BAY — After more than a hundred years of scientific exploration, Yerkes Observatory is going solar.

Solar panels are scheduled to be installed next year on the flat portions of the Yerkes Observatory roof, adding modern renewable energy methods to the 123-year-old building.

The Yerkes Future Foundation, owners of the observatory, have received a grant through the Madison-based RENEW Wisconsin nonprofit to have 75 or more solar panels installed by next summer.

The installation will come as other improvements, such as an extended parking lot and masonry repairs, are underway in preparation for the facility to be reopened to the public for the first time since October 2018.

Yerkes Observatory has sat largely empty and closed to the public since it was closed by its former owner, the University of Chicago. When the building and a bulk of the surrounding property was donated earlier this year to the nonprofit Yerkes Future Foundation, the foundation began restoring and improving the old observatory.

RENEW Wisconsin’s Solar for Good Program has awarded more than $190,000 in cash and materials to 17 nonprofit organizations throughout the state for installing solar energy systems.

While the Yerkes owners will have to finance installation of their system, the grant awarded 75 solar panels to the observatory.

Yerkes Future Foundation director Dianna Colman said her group is working with Adams Electric Inc. from Elkhorn, Milwaukee-based Pearce Engineers and Abacus Architects to ensure that the solar panels are installed properly without damaging the Williams Bay landmark.

Colman said the panels cannot be installed until next year, because of the planning and evaluation that must go into the installation, in addition to the cold weather during winter.

Depending on evaluations determining how much weight the roof can safely support, the observatory may be able to accommodate more than the 75 panels made available through the grant, according to Colman.

Abacus Architects representative Eric Halbur said he and engineers with Pearce Engineers are evaluating what materials the observatory’s roof is made of, to figure out what should be replaced or reinforced. Repairs made to the roof will bolster the amount of weight it can support and ensure that the solar panels can be installed without damage, he added.

“There’s a lot of things we’re diving into and taking care of right now to understand what the impact of that is going to be,” he said.

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Halbur added that he expects the panels to greatly reduce energy costs for the building following the installation.

In addition to the panels, Colman said the foundation is also considering the installation of a monitor inside the observatory that would display information to visitors about how much solar energy is collected on a given day, how much is being stored in batteries, and other details about the alternative energy system.

“The whole thing is becoming part and parcel of what we’re trying to accomplish, which is to look forward with the programming, students and sciences of what’s going on,” she said.

According to RENEW Wisconsin’s grant announcement, the 75 panels awarded to Yerkes Observatory are expected to generate 60 kilowatts of electricity.

Sam Dunaiski, the group’s Solar for Good program manager, said a 60-kilowatt array is enough to power the electricity use of 12 to 13 average-sized homes. He added that officials expect the panels to generate 100 percent of the observatory’s current electric usage.

“For a large project like this on a pretty big facility,” he said, “to be able to offset 100 percent of their needs is really impressive and really something to look at.”

The observatory’s electric usage may increase when it is opened to the public, scheduled for next spring.

The Solar for Good program began operations in 2017 and has awarded grants and materials to 96 nonprofits in Wisconsin. The program is funded almost entirely through the Couillard Solar Foundation, a nonprofit supporting renewable energy projects throughout the state.

Dunaiski said between 12 and 36 nonprofits apply for the program’s biannual funding rounds, and that as many qualified organizations as possible receive funding.

He added that while personally — having an interest in the sciences — he was excited to see the Yerkes Future Foundation awarded solar panels, the Solar for Good program treats all applicants the same when awarding grants. He said the program has funded solar panels on modern and historic buildings alike without discrimination.

“That’s the cool thing about solar,” he said. “It can work on just about any facility.”

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