Your Stimulus Dollars at Work: The Denver Federal Center Solar Campus

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), signed by President Obama on February 13, 2009, called for major new construction and the energy-efficient modernization of federal office buildings, courthouses and land ports across the country. This article—which profiles the Denver Federal Center Solar Campus—is the second in a series in which we examine some of the projects funded by these stimulus dollars. (The first article appears here.)

The Denver Federal Center (DFC) is located at the intersection of West 6th Avenue and Kipling Street in Lakewood, Colo., adjacent to the foothills of the Colorado Rockies and only minutes from downtown Denver. The 623-acre campus houses 55 federal buildings with a total of 4 million square feet of rentable space. More than 6,000 people work there, for federal agencies that include the U.S. Department of the Interior (and its Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Geological Survey), the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Defense and GSA.

GSA used $40 million in ARRA funding to build a large-scale solar energy project at the Denver Federal Center that comprises 35 acres of roof-, ground- and carport-mounted photovoltaic arrays, with the goal of making the facility the most sustainable federal campus by 2020. GSA hired a team of Colorado small businesses to install 34,564 solar panels. The solar panel systems have been tied into the center’s existing electrical distribution system; the seven-megawatt solar array now generates enough power to run the equivalent of 1,050 residential homes, providing more than 15 percent of the DFC’s electrical needs while reducing the demand for common grid-supplied electricity and saving utility costs of more than $700,000 while preventing thousands of tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere every year. The project was completed last December.

Efforts to install solar panels at the DFC actually began well before ARRA. In 2004, Colorado voters became the first in the nation to pass a statewide renewable energy requirement. Amendment 37 requires the state’s utility companies to provide a percentage of their retail electricity sales from renewable resources. By the year 2020, 10% of all retail electricity must come from renewable resources. To get started on meeting these new requirements, Xcel Energy of Colorado solicited businesses to spark interest in using renewable energy to power their buildings. GSA responded by indicating an interest in building a solar park on six empty acres of land on the DFC campus.  On August 3, 2007, GSA’s Rocky Mountain Region awarded a $6.9 million contract to SunEdison to design and build a solar park at the DFC. That one-megawatt photovoltaic solar park, which aimed to generate nearly 10 percent of the campus’s peak electricity demand, was completed in January 2008. The park now produces 1.6 million kWh of energy per year.

While ARRA funding has helped GSA meet its goal of making the DFC the most sustainable federal campus by 2020, critics are questioning whether the project was worth the high price, given the projected payback period of almost half a century. The federal government estimates the payback period will be 48 years—well beyond what the private sector considers acceptable.