The new solar panels atop the Sorenson Multi-Cultural Center began powering a nearly empty campus in mid-June, but the energy generated is hardly going to waste.

Due to COVID-19, the Sorenson facility is closed. The energy that isn’t used by the campus goes back to Rocky Mountain Power’s electrical grid, said Salt Lake City’s senior energy and climate program manager, Christopher Thomas.

The 360 panels are part of the Sorenson campus’s renovation project and Salt Lake City’s efforts to create a more sustainable environment. They will generate about 34% of the energy the campus, which includes the neighboring Unity Center, consumes every year, a news release stated, equating to about 129,000 pounds of coal.

“We are thrilled to unveil this impressive solar array at Salt Lake City’s flagship community center serving our Glendale and Poplar Grove residents,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in the release. “We’re committed to bringing the benefits of clean energy to all areas of our city.”

The first-year mayor has unveiled an aggressive “green” campaign to combat climate change, including a push to plant 1,000 trees a year on the west side and an increased drive for solar energy.

Salt Lake City’s Sustainability Department paid approximately $200,000 toward the Sorenson project, and Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky program, which allows customers to support renewable energy, funded 41% of the tab.

“Organizations like the Sorenson Center play a crucial role in our communities, and we are grateful to our Blue Sky customers for making renewable projects like these possible,” Bill Comeau, Rocky Mountain Power’s vice president for customer solutions, said in the release.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New solar panels on the roof of the Sorenson Center, on California Avenue, on Thursday, July 2, 2020.
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The solar panel installation is expected to help the center have “skin in the game” to promote sustainability through various programs there, said Ken Perko, associate director of the division of youth and family services.

The facility has hosted sustainability-related events, such as solar power open houses and a lightbulb swap so residents can receive energy-efficient lights, Perko said. Once it reopens, the center will likely supply educational materials promoting solar energy.

“To me,” Perko added, “the solar installation is part of the city’s commitment to improving and expanding opportunities on the Sorenson campus.”

The installation is also part of Salt Lake City’s climate action plan, known as Climate Positive 2040, which aspires for Utah’s capital to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2040 with a 50% reduction in its carbon footprint by 2030.

As of 2015, about half the city’s greenhouse gas emissions came from electricity. The city has a deal in the works to meet its goal of reducing emissions from its municipal buildings and operations by 50%.

Thomas said that undertaking will allow the city’s operations and five other customers to receive energy from a solar farm. The project is in final negotiations, and Thomas anticipates it will be finished by 2023.

“That will take a couple of years to build, so it won’t be on line to meet the 50% by the 2020 goal,” he said. “[Once finalized], we will be on a clear pathway to be at 50% — actually we should be significantly above 50% — when that project is on line.”

Thomas said the Sorenson project has not encountered many challenges since crews began installing the panels around April, and he is excited about the city’s future sustainability endeavors.

“I would say it’s been pretty seamless,” he said. “The rooftop solar technology is pretty well known at this point so it’s very easy to know what it’s going to cost. We know a lot about how long these systems last. … So I think from that perspective, the city feels confident that we know what we’re getting when we build a rooftop solar array.”

After all, the city already has installed solar on more than a dozen buildings.