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Solar swagger: Davidson Auto builds gigantic panel array to power five buildings

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Lots of Christmas lights could be bought for $3 million.

That was the investment Davidson Automotive Group made in a ground-mounted solar array roughly the size of two football fields, located behind five buildings it owns on the 1800 block of Route 11, outer Washington Street. With 3,173 photovoltaic solar panels that form 13 long rows, industry professionals said they believe it’s the north country’s largest system.

Each panel will generate 255 watts of electricity, and the system will generate up to 800 kilowatts at any time. That’s enough electricity to power about 13,500 60-watt light bulbs.

Workers from High Peaks Solar, a solar energy firm based in Troy, are expected to finish the three-month project by the end of this week. The solar array will reduce Davidson’s annual energy bill by about 80 percent, said Kevin T. Bailey, owner of High Peaks, who leads solar projects across the state. Electricity will be channeled to five Davidson-owned buildings: its Nissan, General Motors and Ford Supercenters, Collision Center and Used-Vehicle Reconditioning Center.

“Based on my experience, it’s one of — if not the largest — customer-owned projects in the whole area of the state,” Mr. Bailey said, adding that National Grid’s net metering system will calculate how much electricity is generated. “I think three out of the five buildings will produce more energy than they use during the year, and they’ll be taking the surplus electricity and crediting the cost at other buildings.”

Tucked behind rear parking lots, the mammoth solar array isn’t readily visible on outer Washington Street; an unobstructed view is provided on Gillette Road, though, for drivers who gaze to the south while passing Ames Brothers Collision Service.

Davidson’s system will generate more than twice the electricity of the largest solar array on Fort Drum that was installed this fall. That $1 million system produces up to 350 kilowatts of power with its 1,400 panels — 450 kilowatts fewer than the system off outer Washington Street.

The system will complement 500-watt solar panels already installed on rooftops of eight of Davidson’s buildings, Mr. Bailey said, which have reduced electricity costs anywhere from 10 to 40 percent per location. More than 200 panels per building were installed in 2012, he said, when Davidson finished building its new Ford and GM buildings in the spring.

The ground-mounted system was made affordable by a rebate from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority of about 30 percent, co-owner Dwight E. Davidson said. That rebate will be about $900,000, based on the $3 million project cost.

Energy savings harnessed by the system will enable the company to pay off the project in about five years, Mr. Davidson said. As a whole, the ground and rooftop panels are projected to produce 1.6 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That will reduce carbon emissions by about 2.5 million pounds per year.

“When we built our dealerships and put solar on the roofs about 18 months ago, it worked out well, so we decided to expand and go on the ground,” Mr. Davidson said. The project is “a win-win, because we wanted to be as green as possible but do it in an economic way. It had to fit financially, and we looked at the long-term perspective. Without the NYSERDA incentive, it wouldn’t have made sense.”

A total of about 20 construction workers from local subcontractors completed the project with High Peaks Solar, Mr. Davidson said.

Approval of the project was not a contentious issue in the town of Watertown, Mr. Bailey said. He said the town does not require a zoning permit for solar projects at the moment.

“Sometimes (municipalities) have site restrictions with certain energy projects, but these systems are silent and give off no emissions,” Mr. Bailey said. “They’re pretty low profile and not very visible. They tend to run into less resistance from the general public” than wind turbine projects.

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