Most employees at the U.S. Postal Service's Marina del Rey processing center didn't even notice when their workplace became a pioneer of energy technology.
Installed in just two weeks, a roof-mounted solar-energy system the size of a football field has made the Marina Mail Processing and Distribution Center home to what officials say is the country's largest such installation on a federal building.
Postal officials said they chose the new array, unveiled Friday, because of city Department of Water and Power incentives to install systems manufactured in Los Angeles.
The Postal Service paid only $225,000 of the $1 million it cost to install and connect the system, which uses about 1,000 photovoltaic cells manufactured at the Siemens & Shell Solar/PowerLight plant in Chatsworth. The remainder will be covered through subsidies from the DWP and state Department of Energy.
The 127-kilowatt system will generate about 10% of the building's power and be a demonstration project for the Postal Service to determine if similar ones will be installed at the state's other processing centers.
"It's not just getting warm and fuzzy about the environment," said Ray Levinson, environmental compliance coordinator for the Postal Service's Pacific region. "We want to do good things, but they have to be feasible."
Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district includes the postal facility and a Neutrogena plant that was the city's first solar-powered commercial building, and state Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) praised the Postal Service's initiative.
"Somebody has to be the early adopter," said Bowen, chairwoman of the state Senate Energy Committee. "Ten years from now, the vision is that this won't be an isolated incident. This will be the norm in building practices."
The DWP pays customers up to $6 per solar-produced watt if the system is manufactured in Los Angeles, which company officials said can offset installation costs by 75%. The department's usual incentive for solar energy is $3 per watt.
It can take up to 15 years for lower utility bills to offset a system's installation cost, although Levinson expects to recoup in eight years the cost of the system at the processing center, where the utility bill averages $60,000 per month.
Although the initial investment is costly, a DWP official compared the concept to buying a house rather than renting one.
"Energy costs continue to rise, just like rental costs," said Angelina Galiteva, executive director of strategic planning. "The sun is always going to be there, and it will always be free."
Camarillo-based Siemens & Shell, which makes the cells, and Berkeley's PowerLight, which builds the solar-energy systems, partnered in January to run the Chatsworth factory, the only plant in the city where solar-energy systems are manufactured.
The postal facility's system, on which PowerLight will collect data for two years, will demonstrate to companies that solar energy is not just an option for homes, Levinson said.
"The Postal Service doesn't really like to be on the leading edge, but this is a proven technology," he said. "People must step forward and be the pioneers to take the risks that make things better."