“Chip Pickering.” Say that name anywhere around the Mid-Ohio Valley and you either get a great big smile or a quizzical stare while whoever you’re talking to takes a moment to reflect on where they’ve heard that name before.
Dr. Charles “Chip” Pickering, PE has been at the heart of many local startups and volunteer organizations over the years. Chip is well-known for his local Architecture & Engineering firm Pickering Associates and his family’s long history with the contractor Davis Pickering, but recently he has poured his energy into a long-standing interest of his: solar photo-voltaic systems.
Originally, Chip’s foray into solar began as a young electrical engineer fresh out of college. Like most other driven young professionals, he wanted to make the most of this bright world of opportunities – including figuring out how to make solar effective for his projects.
Always the forward-thinker, Chip was ahead of his time for both the solar industry and Appalachia. Photo-Voltaic (PV) technology was originally developed around the 1950s as part of the space race and while commercial system components had progressed throughout the 70s and 80s, system prices were still relatively high.
Despite relatively low labor costs of the time, energy-hungry equipment / appliances and an influx of consumer electronics throughout the 1980s, these developing Solar technologies remained out of reach for most average American households and businesses throughout the 1990s largely due to cheap electricity rates across large parts of the country. Without a solid American market for these PV products and services at the time, Dr. Pickering continued developing his engineering company.
Fast-forward a short decade into the 2000s: this is when Chip decided to focus some engineering efforts on his mission work in Liberia by developing solar array designs, donating components and training the local workforce in Africa on installation and operation fundamentals. He aimed to help address some of the population growth and health issues that developing areas in Liberia had been facing since the end of the recent civil war in 1997.
Lacking a traditional electricity grid (as we’re accustomed to in the US) presented a unique opportunity for Chip to step in and help key Boone County organizations such as hospitals, clinics and orphanages become energy independent with their own solar arrays. Sustainable electricity now allows these organizations to maintain refrigerated vaccinations, keep digital documents and records accessible throughout the day, run pumps to get fresh water from local wells, and even extends emergency hours into the evenings with lighting and other electrical amenities that were previously unreliable due to scarce fuel resources to power traditional (internal combustion) electricity generating equipment.
Solar PV has gone through an amazing growth spurt due to rapid price declines in both manufacturing costs and component pricing throughout the 2010’s. This has led to a “solar awakening” among consumers / businesses as the threshold for entry drops and the return on investment (ROI) becomes increasingly lucrative. With recent success implementing arrays in Africa and a growing fan base stateside, Chip decided to formally start a new Solar PV company, Pickering Energy Solutions (PES) focused on designing, providing and installing residential and commercial systems in the Mid-Ohio-Valley. His team continues to grow each year and the core “crew” still returns to Liberia annually to monitor ongoing operations and new installations the African workforce is now installing as part of the Global PES Team.
The basic approach to solar power is simple: harvest the direct sunlight and convert it into electricity to power our homes and workplaces. This can take a variety of shapes and sizes, sometimes even incorporating batteries. At the individual panel level its DC power and the panels run through an inverter that converts the electricity into AC to power mainstream appliances, lighting and electronics. (We’ll leave the battery discussion for another day.)
In our region of the United States, we see just over four hours of direct sunlight potential per day on average throughout the year – this does factor in all seasons and cloud coverage for precipitation. Not too bad MOV!
We also have ample access to the electricity grid in most areas of the Mid-Ohio Valley, but rural properties continue to consider adding stand-alone solar for outbuildings and other facilities that would require significant investments in infrastructure to receive electricity from the grid.
Recently, Pickering Energy Solutions has proudly partnered with Wood County Schools to install a solar PV array on top of the Parkersburg High School Field House. It will offset only a small fraction of the total power used by the PHS Campus – approx. 3% of the annual electricity consumption. The solar energy produced by the array is mixed with the incoming grid power that supplies the building and the rest of the complex – think of it as dumping a cup of water (solar array) into a lake (the grid). While relatively small compared to a high school campus, this array is still large enough to power 10-15 average US homes! It will help avoid the generation of 132 tons of CO2 each year (roughly the same as planting 100 acres of trees).
This is the largest system PES owns and operates to date and is the first system to be installed on a Wood County Schools property. The 107kW PV array consisting of 378 US manufactured panels from Suniva (GA) was designed, supplied and installed by Chip and the Pickering Energy Solutions team with additional support from local companies like Pro 1 Electric (Parkersburg) and Third Sun Solar (Athens). Incorporating local labor and US materials is paramount in Chip’s strategies to offer solar solutions to our local businesses and residences. The system also utilized Eco-foot, a product developed in Athens, Ohio for installing systems without roof penetrations. “Renewable energy is becoming an important part of an integrated energy infrastructure,” Chip explains. “By identifying local partners we help prepare local contractors and suppliers for this new energy technology.”
Wood County Schools, specifically Parkersburg High School’s Campus, is one of the large local institutions who depend a lot on readily available electricity. A recent round of upgrades at the Field House consisting of a new roof, new insulation, high-efficiency lighting and HVAC systems over the last couple of years really set the stage for an excellent solar opportunity.
Ensuring building operations efficiency is really at the heart of any solar project. Using LED lighting and upgrading insulation and HVAC systems lowers the demand for electricity which, in turn, can reduce the size of solar array needed on smaller projects. “The amount of electricity PHS uses annually is far above and beyond what our array could produce since we’re limited by the size of the roof on the Field House, so really we’re just a drop in the bucket at this facility,” says Nick Arnold, a member of Pickering Energy Solutions.
Still, helping to offset even the meager 3% of the campuses electricity use should have an impact. Education opportunities abound for students to observe and learn from how the system operates as part of their improved building. It’s not the most noticeable array since it’s up on a flat roof of a tall building, but the solar horizon is wide open and the obstructions (amount of shade/shadow the roof gets for example) is extremely minimal since the only thing that surrounds that building are residences and the building is taller than most of the adjacent trees.
As Chip and his team continue to install PV systems across the Mid-Ohio Valley, renewable energy becomes increasingly accessible for our community – which is ultimately his goal. “Renewable energy is becoming increasingly important as the earth moves to a sustainable energy future,” He shares. “By implementing projects locally we are allowing our communities become prepared to participate in these new technologies.”
To learn more about the system installed at Parkersburg High School, stop by the Field House Friday, April 21st at 10am for the dedication, or ask Chip himself at the Earth Day events in both Marietta and Parkersburg this Saturday, the 22nd!
Drone photography and footage by John Bentz
Video edited by Dan Strano