With a footprint larger than most first homes, a 1,614-square-foot metallic square turns to face the sun’s brightest spot, capturing both the powerful rays and nearly all the attention within the Dorchester County industrial park it calls home.
The giant solar panel pumps electricity into IMO USA Corp.’s nearby warehouse, but it also serves as a bold advertisement.
“Want one?” asks chief executive officer Ruediger Unverzagt, always a salesman, motioning toward the futuristic-looking 53-foot-tall structure.
He’s somewhat serious. The German-owned company, which is settling into its new manufacturing plant in Summerville, would sell you one and assemble it within the very building that’s being powered by the working model outside.
Company executives at its overseas headquarters began selling similar alternative-energy devices earlier this year. And while the business has yet to take off — Unverzagt declined to reveal sales figures so far –IMO said it will begin marketing the “solar trackers” at a kick-off event next week.
The oversized panel sits on a rotating pole that follows the sun’s daytime path, giving it huge advantage over immobilized solar panels that can capture 20 or 30 percent less energy. Roughly every two minutes, beneath the cover of the translucent black material, the machine lets out a high-pitched hiss and the bulky square gently shifts. Workers used a crane to place the panel atop the metal column Friday.
“Just the sheer size of having that panel on one pole is amazing,” said Erika Myers, manager of renewable energy programs with the S.C. Energy Office, who keeps track of individual solar panel projects around the state.
She said the IMO panel is both the largest solar tracker in South Carolina and that, in fact, it’s bigger than her first home.
“Mine was 1,300 square feet, and I thought that was pretty big,” she said. “I had three bedrooms and a bathroom.”
Such technology has an equally eye-catching price. Unverzagt said its cost can vary, but Klaus Pless, his vice president of sales, estimates the price to be between $100,000 and $200,000.
The machines last 25 years, and Unverzagt pointed out that energy prices could fluctuate widely within that time frame.
During the course of the year, the solar tracker will prevent the company from drawing in 42,000 kilowatt hours of utility-generated power — enough to power almost four homes for the year.
IMO found other ways to quantify the savings: It estimated it will prevent the burning of 34,000 pounds of coal, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by about 87,000 pounds each year. That’s the environmental equivalent of driving 106,000 less miles every year or planting 6,700 more trees, according to the company.
“We think the U.S. will warm up to this type of energy,” Unverzagt said.
The company secured a $150,000 grant through the state’s Clean Green Energy Incentive Program, which provides money to new or expanding manufacturers for energy upgrades. That stimulus-funded program has ended, but other companies and homeowners could tap into existing state and federal tax credits, Myers said.
Until the first solar tracker sales trickle in, IMO’s local employees will continue to work on the business’s primary venture: making circular rings that help heavy construction machines to rotate. And the outside solar tracker will power up to 40 percent of the 44,800-square-foot building’s operations, not including its production machinery.