Erie Fire Station Goes 100 Percent Solar
If the residents of Erie, Pennsylvania want to see the effects of anthropogenic climate change, they could just look out the window this past February. According to Climate Central’s Earth Day data, Erie is the fourth-fastest warming city in America. Only 0.07 percent of the lake froze, which is not unheard of, but certainly concerned Mayor Joe Schember.
“I can tell you I’ve lived in Erie all my life. I’m 72 years old now,” he says. “When I was a kid, winter would start before Thanksgiving and last until mid-March. Now winter starts around December and it comes and goes. And again, by mid-March it’s all done, but we get maybe half the snow we used to get here.”
It’s one reason he was so excited to be on hand when the Erie Central Fire re-opened with a new set of solar panels and a backup battery system. Solar Revolution—Erie’s only locally owned and operated solar installer—fitted the roof with 225 solar panels that provide 104 percent of the station’s electricity needs. In addition, the battery system allows the station to run for 168 hours completely independently. The latter aspect shows that addressing climate change with renewable energy not only helps the environment but provides for communities during emergencies when fossil fuel sources fail.
“Solar panels are cool in general, because they generate free electricity, but what makes it super awesome here in Erie to have it on a Central Fire Station is it’s a 365 day 24/7 emergency operations center alongside,” says Sarah Peelman, Erie’s Sustainability Coordinator. She spent days driving around with Solar Revolution’s Director of Commercial and Utility Development Justin Mason. They eventually settled on the fire station because of its central location, size, roof shape, and community importance.
"[T]he fact that we were able to put solar panels on the building and ensure that, even during a devastating power outage, they still would have electricity from the solar panels is just really, really super awesome." -- Sarah Peelman, Erie Sustainability Coordinator
“It’s never out of service,” she continues. “It’s always on call to respond to fires and other emergencies throughout the city. So the fact that we were able to put solar panels on the building and ensure that, even during a devastating power outage, they still would have electricity from the solar panels is just really, really super awesome. So this can be [an] essential base of operations during a time of disaster emergencies, which makes it really cool.”
Outfitting the Erie Central Fire Station was a group effort. Green Mountain Energy provided $200,000 from their SolarSPARC (Smart People Accelerating Renewable Change) program, which sets aside some of each customer’s energy bill payments to help communities build solar energy grids. This project is the fifth fire station in the United States with these capabilities.
The panels and battery system were manufactured by Enphase, a California company that also put together a display to explain to Erie residents the workings of the solar grid. The company considers the Erie project a showpiece of what solar installation in public buildings can look like, and representatives were on hand for the switch-throwing ceremony.
One of the challenges to advancing renewables that is often raised is reliability. During Winter Storm Uri that brought down the Texas electric grid in 2021, some were quick to blame the failure on the state’s advancements in solar and wind power. In truth, poor winterization led to catastrophic failures of natural gas electricity providers. Sadly, the myth that renewable energy sources are too fragile for essential infrastructure persists, even in the face of solid evidence to the contrary.
One man who sees the truth is Captain Richard Birt of Las Vegas Fire and Rescue. After 30 years on the job, he retired and started the Solar and Fire Education foundation. He, too, was on hand for the switch flipping, and was excited about the safety possibilities of a fully solar back up battery.
“I talk to a lot of firefighters around the world about the resiliency aspect, and one thing we all realize in the fire service is this, that with climate disasters and what we are facing and what the fire service has to do to save people’s lives, I tell the solar industry this: My skillset for disasters is getting less and less because we can’t keep up with the million-acre fires in California,” he says. “But the solar industry, if they thrive and do it correctly, could be the saviors for civilians, for towns, for cities. So their job is actually becoming more critical than our job. So the idea of saving and helping in climate crises is going to be on the shoulders of the renewable energy industry.”
The City of Erie had their work cut out for them addressing climate change with the fire station. Just because the lake isn’t freezing like it used to doesn’t mean the city doesn’t see hard snowfall. Peelman has had to advocate for the project against a lot of naysayers, most of whom now agree it was a good idea.
“Everybody that knows about the project is really super excited about it,” she says. “And of course, they're like me, they're like, ‘Wow, this is awesome. We should have done this a long time ago.’ But when we first started talking about the project, even among our own city staff, we still got a lot of, ‘Well, solar panels don't work here in Erie. We have too much snow, it's too cloudy, the weather's terrible, it rains all the time. And we're like, ‘No, nope. Pretty sure they work here. Pretty sure.’ And so, it was a really exciting part of the project to also be an example for people in our region to know that, yes, solar energy does work here, solar power is awesome, and it's something we could all be doing.”