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Software firm invests in solar ‘farm’

Epic Systems visitor's parking structure holds 1,300 solar panels. Another 7,700 hundred will be placed in an agricultural area on the property. Epic Systems, the developer of health care IT systems, is launching a project that will see the building of the largest solar project in Wisconsin on the company's sprawling Verona campus. (AP Photo/Journal-Sentinel, Michael Sears)

Epic Systems visitor's parking structure holds 1,300 solar panels. Another 7,700 hundred will be placed in an agricultural area on the property. Epic Systems, the developer of health care IT systems, is launching a project that will see the building of the largest solar project in Wisconsin on the company's sprawling Verona campus. (AP Photo/Journal-Sentinel, Michael Sears)

By THOMAS CONTENT
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

VERONA, Wis. (AP) — By the end of the year, the largest solar project yet built in Wisconsin will take shape in the rolling countryside that Epic Systems calls home.

And by the middle of next year, the new solar “farm” will double in size again.

Clearly, Epic, a fast-growing provider of sought-after health care software that’s hiring 1,000 people just this year, doesn’t embrace small projects.

It’s more cost-effective to build a big renewable energy project than to come back later and expand it, said Bruce Richards, director of facilities and engineering.

And it fits in with a green vision espoused by company founder and chief executive Judith Faulkner.

“We were in a meeting, and I was discussing the payback on a particular project, thinking she might have some concerns,” said Bruce Richards, director of facilities and engineering at Epic. “But she didn’t hesitate. She said, ‘But once it’s paid off, the energy is free, right?'”

Epic clearly has the financial wherewithal to undertake a green-energy investment that other firms might seek state dollars to help fund. Officials declined to disclose the cost of the project.

The company is a developer of health care IT software that helps hospitals move toward electronic medical records. Epic sales grew 27 percent in 2010. Revenue reached $825 million in 2010, compared with $76 million in 2001.

Epic is an economic engine that’s a Wisconsin outlier: A booming business that’s about as far from the state’s manufacturing heritage as you can get.

The company is moving to wean itself off fossil fuels in a big way.

Already, most buildings on the sprawling campus are heated and cooled with a ground-source heat pump system, which means the campus needs no natural gas for heating and no electricity for cooling in the summer.

About 1,300 solar panels were erected in recent months on a latticelike structure above an employee parking lot. Faulkner picked the color of the lattice to match the deep blue light posts that dot downtown Verona, Richards said.

The remaining parking spaces are underground, to retain the pastoral feel of the campus. The result, Richards tells a visitor walking between buildings across the complex, “You’re walking on a green roof right now.”

Richards said the driver of the green campus and move for energy self-reliance comes from a vision of doing right by the planet.

“Sustainability, that’s really what it’s all about,” he said. “We’re looking for 100-year sustainability here. Everything we do in design and put in, that’s what we’re looking to do.”

It also is a statement by a firm looking to attract software engineers who could choose to work at places the likes of Google and Yahoo. Studies show employees in that demographic want their company to care about the planet.

A company that wants software developers to shun the sunny Silicon Valley climate is offering its own alternative to Google’s solar panel-dominated corporate headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

“It’s really a Verona version of the Googleplex,” said Niels Wolter, a Madison solar power consultant.

“Here’s another tech company headed up by engineers who believe in science and think climate change is happening, and they have the profit and the money to cover their campus with solar,” he said.

What looks like a construction site on rolling hills won’t turn into another cookie-cutter subdivision with McMansions.

Instead, workers are drilling deep underground to place 2,000 geothermal wells. Above ground, concrete foundations have been poured that will be the staging for solar panels that will be mounted 13 feet up.

Why so high? To allow the land beneath the panels – and above the geothermal wells – to continue to be farmed, probably alfalfa.

By next summer, more than 7,500 new panels are expected to generate electricity, 2.2 megawatts, enough to power nearly 300 typical homes. That will be by far the biggest solar electric project in the state, and one of the largest in the upper Midwest.

Until now, the largest projects have been Johnson Controls Inc.’s corporate headquarters in Glendale and the Photovoltaic Education Laboratory built last year by Milwaukee Area Technical College north of East Capitol Drive in Milwaukee. Together, they generate less than 1 megawatt.

Yet, Epic is growing so fast that even thousands of solar panels won’t meet its total energy demand. The 500-acre site is seeing construction of a massive addition to its learning center, the centerpiece of which is a 10,000-square-foot auditorium to be built by 2013. The existing auditorium, which seats more than 5,000, isn’t big enough to accommodate the annual “users group” meeting that attracts Epic customers from around the country.

Epic is eyeing other moves in its bid toward energy self-reliance. Under evaluation, Richards said, is construction of two utility-scale wind turbines that would generate up to 3 megawatts of electricity, as well as a biomass-to-energy project that would convert food waste and landscaping trimmings from the campus into energy.

“We’re looking for 100-year sustainability here,” said Richards, who joined Epic after running the engineering department at General Motors Corp.’s Janesville Assembly Plant until the factory closed.

“We use as much green or recycled materials as we can, Look at the copper roofs on the buildings, that’s really for sustainability. It costs you more up front, but sustainability-wise it’s the right thing to do.”

Leftover materials from construction projects are reused in unique forms around the campus. Here, ironworkers shaped the blue metal left over from the solar overhang into animal sculptures. There, a two-story “tree house” made with construction extras boasts a giant conference table and wireless Internet capability, ready for outdoorsy team meetings.

Epic is embarking on its ambitious green-energy expansion at a time when Wisconsin’s renewable energy sector is facing uncertainty.

Policies pushed by the administration of Republican Gov. Scott Walker are shifting away from the previous administration’s push to wean the state from an overreliance on electricity generated by coal, a key contributor of global warming gases.

Moves to build more wind farms and generate more power from biomass have been pushed back. The state’s Focus on Energy program is under new management, and the state’s largest utility has scaled back on a renewable energy collaborative.

The price of solar power has come down significantly in recent years, even though it still has a ways to go to make it cost-competitive with other forms of power, on a per-unit-of-energy basis. A federal SunShot strategy launched by Energy Secretary Steven Chu seeks to make technology investments to make solar cost-competitive within several years.

On a smaller scale, Johnson Controls incorporated a similar geothermal-below-solar system design into its green corporate headquarters in Glendale. That campus became a showcase for some of the company’s energy-efficiency and renewable energy integration technologies.

Other examples of major solar investments are found at Orion Energy Systems in Manitowoc, Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s Corp. sites and GE Healthcare in Waukesha.

“It’s cool to see corporate citizens are keeping solar going forward,” Wolter said. “It’s an interesting contrast, as this new administration is so pro-business and they’re cutting all this stuff, yet a lot of the cutting-edge businesses are doing solar.”

Information from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, http://www.jsonline.com

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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