Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Fun in the Sun (and Snow)

Just for fun (I've been too serious lately) here is a wild idea. How about asking Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) to cover the top level of the parking deck? The top deck was closed for days this winter due to ice and snow, with a few falls anyway, so doesn't it make sense to cover it? Moreover we could stand some protection from the sun on unbearably hot Arkansas summer days and drenching rain storms.

The Proposal

David Berry (our COO) and Gina Wingfield (our CFO) would say this is a great idea if we had the money, but there are higher priorities for spending than our comfort (and occasionally our safety). But what if I were to tell them and you that it wouldn't have to cost us a dime? The details are somewhat more complicated, but the concept is spectacularly simple. A photovoltaic (PV) solar panel pays for itself in twenty years (typically, and maybe as short as ten). That's it! That is my great idea.


  • Providing protection from the sun is straightforward; that is what 'solar' panels do essentially. Using panels to protect from ice and snow requires more creativity, but it can be done.
  • The generating capacity for commercial customers for net-metering rules would be limited to 450 kW, which would be around 1800 panels. These would only cover about 180 parking spaces or ¾ of the top level.
  • Connecting to the grid will require careful coordination with Entergy, including review of the net-metering agreement and a specific contract with Entergy up front (above my pay grade). Maybe we can negotiate a higher limit at the same time.

Are you kidding?

No, I am serious. Well I am having fun, of course, but I'm serious too. Moreover, I am not the first to think of this. Maybe the first at ACH (or not, I don't know), but similar projects are already underway, for example, at UT Southwestern Medical Center and at the VA Hospital in Little Rock. The VA project has been delayed, but I'm told it is now a matter of working out a few final details. It is a big (huge) project, after all, at least five times larger than the one I am suggesting.

Although Arkansas lags behind the rest of the country, the amount of electricity generated by U.S. utility-scale solar photovoltaic power plants is up more than 100 percent in 2014 over the same period in 2013, and it is predicted to double again within the next two years or less. Solar power is no longer a risky proposition. ACH is wise not to be the first (and it's not) but it should be among the leaders for this trend.

Why should ACH take the lead?

Above I suggested that solar panels would be a cost-effective way to provide protection from the elements (sun, rain, snow, and ice) for a few vulnerable parking spaces, but there are more compelling reasons that ACH should lead out in such a project.


The CDC estimates that the prevalence of asthma nation-wide is around 8%. In Arkansas this number tends to be higher, around 13%. Among 9th through 12th graders in Arkansas, the prevalence may exceed 20%. In any case asthma among kids, especially teenagers, is a serious problem in Arkansas. The causes are multi-factorial, true, but without necessarily claiming a direct cause-effect relationship, coal-fired power plants are known to be major sources of particulate and sulfur dioxide pollution that trigger asthma, of which there are four in Arkansas. (One of these is said to be "clean" while another is listed among the dirtiest, but all contribute.)

If any institution in Arkansas should lead out in promoting clean air by cutting back on coal-fired power, it should be Arkansas Children's Hospital. Yes, 450 kW is just a drop in the bucket but not insignificant, nor would its impact be trivial. It is a start, a good start, and along with the VA Hospital we could make a profound statement for change. Yet clean air is not the half of it. Coal-fired power plants also emit carbon dioxide, a green-house gas, which is a major contributor to climate change.

Climate Change

Experts with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) believe climate change plays an even bigger role in allergies and asthma than what is being reported. "Climate change has the potential to affect all aspects of allergen exposure, including both indoor and outdoor allergens, as well as communicable diseases that are related to allergies and asthma." Beyond that, the World Health Organization estimates that more than 80% of the health burden due to climate change occurs in children less than 5 years old. As early as 2005, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warned that "there is broad scientific consensus that Earth's climate is warming rapidly and at an accelerating rate. Human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, are very likely to be the main cause of this warming." They went on to state that "because of their physical, physiological, and cognitive immaturity, children are often most vulnerable to adverse health effects from environmental hazards." Since then the AAP has reaffirmed these statements several times, as late as July 2014.

If any institution in Arkansas should be concerned about the health and well-being of our children and theirs it is Arkansas Children's Hospital. We cannot turn a blind eye to the many different forms of global destruction that will result from global warming caused by our addiction to coal and other fossil fuels. It will have a direct and indirect impact on the children of our state, and even devastating impacts on children around the world. How can we fail to do everything in our power to change the direction in which our world is heading?

There are powerful entities in our state that will try to tell you this is all political hype. They will claim there has been no warming for over fifteen years, or that the warming we've seen is natural variation unrelated to human activity. They will state that scientists disagree with each other and that there is still much debate about climate change. Or they will insist that reducing our use of fossil fuels would be an economic disaster, especially for developing countries. They will say anything they can to promote the continued use of their fossil fuel assets for as long as possible. Many of the medical staff at ACH are old enough to remember the same tactics used by big tobacco forty years ago to hold onto their profits. Don't believe them.

If any institution in Arkansas should accept the evidence of science on climate change it is Arkansas Children's Hospital. When we want to provide the best care for our patients we seek out the best scientific evidence we can. We follow the best experts we can find. If the evidence is equivocal we hold off and are (or try to be) patient, but when the evidence is clear we act upon it. My friends, there is ample evidence on climate change. Scientists by nature are conservative, scientific organizations even more so, but nearly every significant scientific organization in the world has issued a statement that climate change is real and that human activity is responsible. Well over 90% of the climate experts in the world agree (97% actually). To suppose that all of them are wrong (or part of a conspiracy) is foolhardy. And for those of you who wish to examine the evidence for yourselves, please let me know. I promise you, it is both impressive and convincing.

The Mission of ACH

The Mission of ACH is to "champion children by making them better today and healthier tomorrow." How can we fail, therefore, to do everything possible to mitigate climate change and its potential to devastate our children and theirs beyond anything we now imagine? How can we not do everything in our power, including actions that might be politically controversial, to change the tide?

Okay, so maybe we are not quite there yet. What we can do, however, is something less controversial and much less risky, such as installing a few solar-panel covered parking spaces. This proposal is a win-win. It protects our employees, pays us back over time, and makes a positive statement about clean energy generation. We can wait until the following year (or the next) to picket the Foundation to divest its fossil fuel holdings or the EPA to further tighten its clean air standards. As I said above, removing 450 kW from the grid seems precious little, but it would say (and do) more than you might think.

Did I say something about not being so serious? Oh well.


  1. Donnal, this is awesome! With this project, ACH will be a model for many health centers nation wide.

    We are working on a rooftop solar system for the Eureka Christian Health Outreach (ECHO), the Eureka Springs free medical clinic. ECHO has provided medical services to thousands of low-income patients. Shortly, ECHO will be outfitted to be our Community Emergency Shelter. Our best medical doctors, nurses and many other good folks are ECHO volunteers.

    As a shelter, ECHO has additional power requirements to provide emergency services when the grid is down. We plan a hybrid system with grid-tied solar panels and a large propane generator for emergencies.

    To reduce energy demand, we plan energy conservation and efficiency measures as the initial step: these savings alone may pay for the cost of the solar system!

    Use less, Waste none, and let the Sun Shine!

  2. Thanks, Luis. I will watch the ECHO project with interest.

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