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P4P’s installations provide benefits beyond solar

Steven and Mary Catherine Conger admire P4P's solar installation at the Carbondale dog park.
Charlie Wertheim / Post Independent

A Carbondale company is making global steps in innovative solar installation.

P4P Energy was co-founded by Steven and Mary Catherine Conger in 2010 and has projects in the U.S., India and Germany.

P4P — Power for the People, a twist on the ’60s slogan — designs, manufactures and engineers solar racking systems.

Tensile structure design is “our secret weapon,” Steven Conger said, referring to himself as the 73-year-old startup guy.

Tension structures require 25-60% less steel than conventional structures and are faster and easier to build, Conger said — the Golden Gate Bridge is one example of tension structure.

Maybe their secret weapon really is finding value in their installations beyond power generation.

P4P’s solar installation over the Sidhwan Canal in Punjab, India, gets cleaned.
P4P Energy

Over-water application

In India P4P has installed solar panels over some of the country’s thousands of miles of agricultural canals.

A 1.6-mile-long project generates 2.5 megawatts, Conger said.

The panels shade the canal, reducing evaporation by 60-80% and therefore reducing water loss, Conger said.

P4P also has a patent for a membrane that can cover a canal. It eliminates evaporation and stops algae growth, keeping the water cleaner, Conger said. 

The membrane could be used without the solar panels if someone asked P4P to set it up that way, board member Steve Tullar said.

Conger said he chose to work in India because of their need for help and how well solar can work over their canal system.

“It’s also easier to break a new product into the market in India because there’s less regulation. It’s sort of the Wild West,” he said.

Over-parking installation

P4P has built carports in India and the U.S., and the company got a $1 million grant from the federal Department of Energy to get them ready for the mass market. 

Design is underway for a 79,200 kilowatt showcase carport at the former Chula Vista Olympic Training Center in San Diego.

The carports provide shade, which can minimize UV damage to vehicles as well as the need to cool them. 

They also reduce the urban heat island effect by preventing the sun from warming up asphalt. The panels themselves don’t heat up appreciably because they are ventilated by air circulation.

Over-agriculture installation

P4P is currently setting up an over-agriculture demonstration in Germany. 

Plants need varying amounts of light, and the periods when plants need less sun are better for energy production, Conger said.

“We can optimize the system for both energy production and plant growth,” Conger said.

Together with windbreaks and a shade diffusion cloth, the over-agriculture design can extend the growing season by protecting crops from freezing in spring and fall and cooling the land during the hottest part of the year, Conger said.

The system also reduces water needs by shading the ground and reducing windspeed, which lessens evaporation, he said.

Architectural roots

P4P is rooted in architecture.

“My mentor was [architect] Buckminster Fuller. … He taught me lightweight structure,” Conger said.

Conger came up with a way to use lightweight structure in relation to solar power.

“We had a job where they wanted all the energy on the site to be generated on the site,” and there was a stream on the property, Conger said.

It ended being cheaper and causing less environmental damage to suspend solar panels on cables than to use microhydro, he said.

So began the quest to fulfill the mission Fuller gave Conger: “to build structures that support humanity.”

Patents

In its early years P4P invested time developing patents and now has more than 50 design and utility patents.

“We spent a lot of time developing intellectual property,” Conger said.

Which is not to say they stopped doing so.

“We keep on developing new patents,” Conger said. 

Conger’s first patent both predated and laid the groundwork for P4P.

“When the two of us got married and I found out about the patent that Steven had applied for there was a pause in architecture. … I was really behind this because I wanted to participate in something that would help make a difference in the world, help with the climate crisis and help humanity,” Mary Catherine Conger said.

Getting the word out

Tullar sees P4P as the company that can design a solar installation for any set of circumstances.

“What we’re really striving to become is a solutions platform for providing solar energy in places where there are no other companies out there with solutions. … We’re going to be providing solutions for people who come to us and say, ‘How am I going to create solar energy for this [situation],” he said.

To get the word out about what P4P is capable of, Tullar said the company is seeking high profile projects for visibility.

An example is an 800 kilowatt project on a parking garage next to the Honolulu Airport.

“It’s going to be a landmark project in Hawaii that everybody who drives in and out of the airport would see, so we’re excited about that,” Conger said.

P4P’s focus now is preparing to sell to solar markets by setting up regional sales centers, Conger said.

“Our goal is to grow the company fast enough to make a contribution to the energy transition and environmental predicament we find ourselves in,” Conger said.

cwertheim@postindependent.com


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