Note: The information contained in this periodical weblog may be outdated. This was my personal weblog published before January 1, 2015. Since then I have been the co-owner and Principal Solar Designer at Florida Solar Design Group.

Lamar Advertising Billboards go Solar in Southwest Florida

Fafco Solar Billboard with Solar Panels
Fafco Solar Billboard with Solar Panels

About a year ago I was excited to learn that Lamar advertising was upgrading its billboards in Florida with solar panels. I thought that there might be some work in it for local Florida solar contractors. Unfortunately, that never happened. It gets worse…

I was again excited to see that Fafco Solar’s billboard on US 41 in Fort Myers had been upgraded with solar panels, so I stopped by to check it out. It’s not what I expected. I thought the billboards would have a grid-independent solar energy system with battery backup. It turns out that what is installed is simply a four-panel grid-interactive solar energy system. The system utilizes four 230W solar modules and two [now discontinued] Enphase D380 microinverters. The system is capable of producing 760 AC watts, and approximately 1,300 kilowatt-hours annually (equivalent to approximately $150 in utility electricity).

Normally I would be elated to see anyone install a solar energy system, but this is the epitome of green-washing and an example of a totally impractical use for solar energy.

There are a few good reasons to use solar energy to power a billboard. The first is to be independent from the grid, making the lighting and advertisement rotation motor operate during utility outages. The second is to eliminate the need for grid power in remote locations, like along Interstate highways where it may be costly to install utility poles and meters. Tangential reasons are to reduce operating costs and produce green energy. This is where my concern lies.

If you want to reduce your energy footprint or operating costs, the best way to do it is in the most economical fashion possible. That is, produce the most energy for the lowest investment. The manner in which these solar panels are installed is very expensive, requiring a lot of steel to make a hardy wind-resistant rack. It also requires fixed costs like permitting and interconnection hardware. The better choice would have been to install solar panels at the company’s headquarters in a more efficient ground or roof mounted system. For example, instead of installing four panels on 1,000 billboards, it is far more efficient to install a system with 4,000 solar panels in the same location. The end result would be the same. There is no benefit to having these solar panels colocated with the billboards.

Distributed energy production systems like small grid-interactive solar energy systems are generally a good thing, and I support the concept fully. However, there comes a point at which the marginal benefit is so small that you have to ask yourself, “is this practical?” In this case, the answer is clearly NO!

Solar Panels on Fafco Solar's Billboard in Fort Myers, FL
Fafco Solar's billboard uses microinverters to produce grid voltage to offset utility electricity usage.

 

 

4 Comments


  1. How can Mr. Szumlanski criticize the installation of this or any other system without first addressing a net metering standard in which avoided cost re-purchase of power makes it financially impractical to install the excess capacity necessary to offset the cost of an off-grid system? Moreover, until such time as economical storage systems exist, grid-tie will be the default architecture in all but remote locations where batteries are the only option. Those are simple facts, which are quite clear when making any objective analysis of these systems. What is just a clear is Mr. Szumlanski’s bias against these particluar systems on the basis of his not receiving the contract for their installation. What he fails to see is that in so visibly promoting the use of solar (even if doesn’t represent the utopian installation he has in his minds eye), Lamar is conveying to tens of thousands of people in the Fort Myers area every day, that solar WORKS, and that perhaps this is something they should consider. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I believe this is called free advertising, which is something Mr. Szumlanski seems to have overlooked in the process of producing his myopic and vindictive rant(s).

  2. To say Lamar solar billboards are the “epitome of green-washing and an example of a totally impractical use for solar energy” puts these installation in the same ball park as BP telling us that dispersants are good for the environment on oil spills. Not only is this statement total hyperbola but the assertions and justifications for the arguments miss the mark on so many levels and show a lack of real understanding of the future of solar energy.

    The point of Lamar’s installation is not to make every billboard independent of the grid but to help reduce and stabilize the power costs of their signs knowing that energy prices are only going in one direction in the future. I am sure that Lamar is not looking for a 6 month payback on this investment. The fact is that the tens of thousands of billboards in the State of Florida that are already grid-tied installations, why would you want to make them battery backed up independent systems with all of their extra costs associated with those systems. The net metering solution is the best solution we have presently in political environment we presently have. Besides, with a properly designed and implemented system, where all the panels are installed and working properly and with the installation of good low power lighting alternatives, Lamar could easily expect to almost zero out their energy bill on their static billboards. I see no down side to these installations from an energy production point of view.

    As far as the modular design of pole mounted panels with micro inverters, I find it a great design that can fit onto almost any billboard Lamar may have in their inventory without a great deal of individual engineering required for every installation. Billboards, like houses are rarely orientated for maximum solar exposure. Being able to quickly install systems on a wide variety of different structures makes the design a much more practical and less expensive installation overall. Micro inverters allow for small quick connections to their power source without a lot of complicated DC wiring requirements and give more flexibility to panel choices and long term maintenance.

    Finally, the assertion that one big field of panels located in some remote location is somehow equal to the same number of panels on remote locations completely misses the point of distributive generation. Were it not for the fact that this power configuration is completely prohibited in the State of Florida where net metering laws prohibit the sale of electrons between individual meters even if owned by the same customer, the inefficiency of transmission of electricity does not allow this sort of equality. Almost half of the electricity generated for the grid is lost to transmission resistance, transformer inefficiency and line loss. This would require that you would need twice as many panels on a central field as you would require for a site installation. Putting panels at the point of use makes 100% of the power usable at the site with no line loss for the many signs scattered throughout the State.

    Distributive power generation is a paradigm shift in thinking about our energy grid and requires a completely different way of looking at how we generate and use electricity. Lamar is on the cutting edge of this technology and a great corporate citizen pushing the envelope of the technology. I would suggest that you re-think your concerns and think about 21st Century solutions instead of trying to fit solar into the old way of doing business.

    1. Author

      Jeremiah,

      I agree with much of what you say – more than you may think.

      Let me make something clear – I do not advocate a battery based, grid-independent system on billboards when there is grid power available. As you have alluded to, battery based systems are very expensive and only make financial sense today in true off-grid or “mission critical” systems. The netmetering solution is clearly the best we have in today’s political landscape.

      I am well aware of the point behind distributed generation. I have used hyperbole in my article to make the point that ultra-small distributed generation systems are not cost effective. There is no argument you can make to say that a 380W or 760W (ac) grid interactive system on a billboard has the same economies of scale as even a small 2kW residential system. My point is that there is a point of diminishing returns that needs to be considered, and my opinion is that Lamar’s project, while well-intentioned, does not make efficient use of funds in terms of generating the most energy possible for the money.

      I’m not sure what you are talking about with regards to “the old way of doing business.” You and I are in the same business – selling distributed generation systems for commercial and residential customers. I fully support distributed generation systems when they make good financial sense. I am well aware that my position is contrary in many ways to the message I need to pitch every day. However, people see the billboards and automatically think that a few panels will work wonders and can make good financial sense for them. In many cases, I am the bearer of bad news – larger systems are generally far better in terms of cost efficiency.

      I may have been a bit strong with the “epitome of green-washing” statement. Again, we probably have more in common than you think, and I’d like to meet you someday when I am up your way. Thanks for being part of the discussion.

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