Amoco tries out solar panels

"Green" gas: BP Amoco PLC is testing "thin-film" solar panels at a new station in Olney.


January 18, 2000|By Mara H. Gottfried | Mara H. Gottfried,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Bobby Fletcher, owner of Fletcher's Amoco in Olney, estimates that he saves about 10 percent to 15 percent on his electricity bills each month, thanks to the new "thin-film" solar panels that glisten on the canopy over the pumps.

BP Amoco PLC spent about $30,000 to build and install the panels at the Georgia Avenue station. Company officials hail the solar panels, lined in 12 rows of 12, as the first thin-film panels in use at a gas station in the United States.

Fletcher of Olney is a believer in the importance of his business' public image.

"It's nice because we operate a community business and it's been rewarding to hear the feedback from people," said Fletcher, 37, who took over his father's now 41-year-old business in 1987. BP Amoco built the solar-powered station on Fletcher's property adjacent to the old station, which now is Fletcher's auto repair and car wash. The new station opened Sept. 27.

"People always complain about gas stations for the pollution and odor, so it's nice to be doing something a little bit green for once," he said.

Fletcher might be surprised to hear that many of his customers never noticed the solar panels; he said he thinks some people are drawn to the station because it enhances the appearance.

Burtonsville resident Pete Margus pulled into Fletcher's Amoco in Olney last week to refuel. Little did Margus know that as he pumped his gas, 144 solar panels were catching the sunlight and converting it into electricity overhead.

"Where are they?" asked Margus, 48, squinting upward. "I just needed gas."

One customer said he is a regular weekly patron of the station, although he attributed convenience as more of a factor than the lure of the solar panels.

"I like the idea here and I do use solar panels at my home," said Gene Henley of Sandy Spring.

Albert Anton, a partner in the New York City investment brokerage firm Carl H. Pforzheimer & Co., said he, too, likes the idea.

"Installing solar panels at a gas station could have to do with testing panels, it could be a public relations gesture to show they are environmentally friendly or it could be a business investment," Anton said. "It's probably a marginal investment in the Baltimore area because you wouldn't have as high of a return as you would in say, Arizona."

Good public relations from using solar panels could translate into more business for Fletcher's Amoco, Anton said.

"The economics of a gas station are very heavily geared toward volume," he said. "If this move inspires a 15, 20, 25 percent increase in use because people think this is a good idea, then that might be a profit angle."

BP Solarex, a subsidiary of BP Amoco, designed and produced the thin-film solar panels, which are not to be confused with the more commonly used crystalline solar panels. Thin film is the "newest technology of commercially available thin-film solar electric modules," said Sarah Howell, BP Solarex deputy director of external affairs. BP Solarex is in Frederick, but the company is moving its corporate headquarters to Linthicum this month.

Thin-film panels cost about half the price of crystalline panels to produce because the raw materials used in the manufacture are less expensive, Howell said. They are also less labor-intensive.

Howell illustrated the price difference by comparing the costs between installing a crystalline and thin-film solar system in the average Maryland home. Assuming that each is a three-kilowatt system that provides about half of a home's electrical needs, Howell said the crystalline system would cost about $21,000 and the thin film $18,000.

One drawback for thin-film panels is their diminished ability to efficiently convert sunlight into electricity. Howell said BP Solarex thin-film panels have a 7 percent to 8 percent rate of efficiency, while crystalline panels are 12 percent to 16 percent efficient.

BP Amoco will decide by the end of the year whether it will install solar panels at other stations, said Dan Larson, BP Amoco public affairs adviser for the Atlantic Business Unit in Towson.

"I think it's pretty safe to say that solar will be a big part of new stations that the company builds, but I can't say absolutely," Larson said.

"One of the things we wanted to do was demonstrate how these solar panels would work in a typical commercial application," he said. "That was a big part of why we did this. Another part was to see what is involved in installing an array of solar modules at typical gas stations and to find out how long it takes and the costs."

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