Intelligent Energy

Alcatraz: Giving new meaning to solar 'cells'

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A dark and foreboding prison? Forget it! Welcome to The New Rock, where photovoltaics are going after one of society's most wanted criminals, CO2.

Alcatraz as we know it. Gloomy.

--

"Bright, shiny, clean." Not the three words you'd come up with to describe Alcatraz.

The new bright, shiny Alcatraz, generating clean electricity from its rooftop.

In fact, they kind of ruin the tone for a place we want to think of as "dark, foreboding, gloomy." Alcatraz - the notorious prison set on a craggy island in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay - occupies that place in our psyche that we curiously reserve for creepiness. No one ever successfully escaped The Rock (except for maybe three guys in 1962 in an unresolved caper that was as much Ferris Bueller as it was Al Capone). If you even tried, the frigid, treacherous waters would kill you, if the sharks didn't - and all that stuff of lore.

That's how we like the place, now operated by the U.S. National Park Service as a sort of Mecca for the morbidly curious. About 1.4 million people visit it every year, spooked by the Birdman, haunted by Machine Gun Kelly.

John Anglin, who along with brother Clarence and Frank Morris escaped in 1962 by putting dummy heads in their beds - a precursor to Ferris Bueller.  The Feds never found 'em. Did they survive? Will they return to admire the photovoltaics?

Sorry, but welcome to The New Rock! Alcatraz has gone bright, shiny and clean, at least when it comes to generating electricity.

Yup, in keeping with today's climate change ethos, the U.S. Department of Energy and the park have installed 1,300 solar panels on the rooftop of the prison cell block.

The $3.6 million project will slash the amount of diesel that the Park Service hauls to the island to drive a dirty generator, "reducing the time the generator runs from 100 percent to 40 percent, according to DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The panels have a capacity of 307 kilowatts. Combined with an array of storage batteries and the installation of energy efficient light bulbs in prison cells and elsewhere in the block, NREL estimates that Alcatraz will generate 400 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, saving 337,000 kilograms of carbon emissions and shaving pollution.

In the spirit of Alcatraz' prison history, you could say that it's an attempt to go after that infamous Top 10 Most Wanted criminal, CO2.

Photos: Alcatraz at dawn, Wikimedia. Alcatraz solar panels from National Park Service via NREL. John Anglin from Federal Govt via Wikimedia.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure