Solar energy is no longer some futuristic, pie-in-the-sky idea in Washington County.
Concerned about rising energy costs, the environmental threats associated with traditional methods of electric generation and what kind of world is going to be left to their children, business owners in the county have invested tens of thousands of dollars to set up their own solar-power systems.
Solar panels now stretch across roofs and atop columns that track the sun as it moves across the sky.
At a Staples distribution center along Hopewell Road in Hagerstown, more than 11,000 solar panels soak up the energy from the sun and generate electricity.
Staples did not have to pay a penny for the solar system.
Through an agreement between Staples and a company known as SunEdison, SunEdison designed, developed, financed and operates the system, and Staples buys the electricity generated from it at a price equal to or below market rates, company officials said.
At the Smile Design Centre along Robinwood Drive, two solar systems are a power-generating facility, as well as a statement from Paul McAllister, the owner of the business, who said he wants to promote solar energy.
McAllister said he hopes people who drive past his office look at the solar panels and at least give solar energy a thought.
McAllister, who specializes in dentistry with an emphasis on cosmetics, said he started considering solar energy after thinking about the rising price of energy and how the United States must rely on oil-rich countries.
He said another consideration is the condition of the planet that will be left for future generations.
While McAllister said there are issues to be hashed out in regard to global warming, it's not something he is going to ignore.
"It's pretty serious stuff and I don't want to take a chance on contributing to that," McAllister said.
Work on building solar systems at Smile Design Centre started about a year ago and involved the installation of two pole-mounted systems. The structures, installed by Standard Solar, are designed to track the sun as it moves across the sky, McAllister said.
More than 70 solar panels cover different angles on the roof of Smile Design Centre and that system was installed by Astrum Solar, McAllister said.
The pole-mounted system is a 7.4-kilowatt operation and the roof panels make up a 12-kilowatt system. Together, they generate enough electricity to cut McAllister's electric bill roughly in half.
Before the systems were installed, McAllister said his electric bills reached nearly $1,800 a month. Now the office's monthly electric bills have been running about $800, McAllister said.
Learning at lunch
Driving across Hagerstown to Oak Hill Avenue, you might notice a few extra electrical gadgets and lines running outside Copyquik Printing & Graphics LLC.
They are connected to a system that includes 142 solar panels installed on the roof of the printing shop.
The system generates about 33,500 kilowatts of electricity a year, which is enough electricity to power 2 1/2 homes for a year, said Barry D. Martin, owner of the business.
Martin said he has been interested in solar energy for quite awhile. Martin said his curiosity was piqued when Phil Kelly of Millennium 3 Energy spoke at a Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce "lunch-and-learn" event about solar energy.
Kelly talked at the event about how the United States is lagging behind other countries in terms of renewable energy sources, Martin said.
"I think as small businesses, we need to look at sources (for) less-costly energy," Martin said.
Martin hired Kelly to investigate the possibility of installing a solar system at his office and ended up with a 30-kilowatt system that he estimates has reduced his electric bill by one-third.
Martin said his system cost about $180,000 and he estimates the energy-cost savings will pay off in five to six years.
In September, Staples and SunEdison unveiled the 1.5-megawatt system at the Staples distribution center on Hopewell Road. The system joins another solar-energy system at a Staples fulfillment center in Hanover, Md., and the two systems will generate close to 60 million kilowatts of energy over 20 years, according to company officials.
That is enough energy to power more than 5,500 average homes for one year, the company said in a news release.
The fact that the Hagerstown operation will allow Staples to buy electricity from the system, which is equal or below market rates for regular electricity, is attractive to the company, said company spokesman Bob Valair.
Besides helping Staples with its energy costs, the solar facility helps complement Staples' sustainability program, which emphasizes energy efficiency and green technology, Valair said.
"This latest solar-power system installment at our Hagerstown fulfillment center demonstrates Staples' ongoing dedication to sustainable business," said Mark Buckley, vice president of environmental affairs for Staples.
Tony Valente, coordinator of alternative energy and industrial technology programs at Hagerstown Community College, said he was not surprised by the spread of solar energy systems in the county.
Like the beginning of the computer age when computer use started gradually, then grew into what it is today, Valente said he thinks there eventually will be an "explosion" in solar-energy use.
Business owners who get involved in solar energy often become interested in other ways to conserve energy, Valente said.
That occurred with McAllister and Martin, who installed more energy-efficient lighting in their businesses.