ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - After three years and nearly $500,000, an ambitious project to try and use solar power to heat and cool a building at the Albuquerque Sunport still isn't operational, according to an airport official.
"(It's) a system we're still trying to get to work," said Jim Hinde, aviation director for the city of Albuquerque.
Evidence of the project can be found atop the roof of the airport's rental car facility. There you'll find a dazzling array of mirrors, which are designed to focus the sun's rays on a single water-filled pipe. Hot water from that pipe is supposed to heat the building in winter and power a chiller to cool it in summer.
It was the largest system of its type ever installed in the United States. The project was a joint venture by the state of New Mexico, the Sunport, New Mexico State University, the Department of Energy and a private company based in London called Heliodynamics.
The state's Energy, Mining and Natural Resources Department contributed $199,132 to the project, while the city contributed about $278,000, according to officials.
But from the beginning in 2009, it was something of an experiment, or a demonstration project, designed to test whether the idea could work on a large scale. However, the major setback came after Heliodynamics went out of business in 2010, leaving the project in limbo.
In the interim years, Sunport officials scrounged enough parts to complete the system. They now hope to have it up and running early next year.
"(The department's) Energy Conservation and Management Division funded this project with the belief that solar cooling was a worthwhile technology to pursue given the issues with cooling and electricity usage in the Southwest," according to a statement issued to News 13. Officials declined to comment further.
Hinde said the city took a chance on the project because it believes in alternative energy.
"We have always been on the leading edge of technology development, whether it be security systems and especially on the green, I'll call it, renewable-energy front," Hinde said.
And while the project to heat and cool the rental car facility has been a struggle, the Sunport has made other investments in alternate technologies that have paid off in big ways.
For example, in 2009, the airport installed photovoltaic panels on top of parking structures. Those panels produce a full megawatt of power, which is enough to power 1,000 homes, and cut the electric bill for lights in the parking areas from $260,000 a year to $60,000 a year.
In addition, Sunport officials replaced 3,000 runway lights this summer to low-power LED lights, cutting power usage by 40 percent.
Meanwhile, the head of the solar heating/cooling project from NMSU told News 13 that initial testing has shown that the system, if it gets up and running, will deliver long-term energy savings. And that means that today's government waste could be tomorrow's breakthrough technology.
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