Cox Communications installs solar panels

Rain pounded Wednesday on the solar panels that blanket the roof of the Cox Communications building in Macon, but that didn’t dampen the company’s enthusiasm about its huge, new, green-energy project.

The company just finished installing its new photovoltaic system, which converts energy from the sun into direct-current electricity using 400 angled solar panels on the roof. Employees enjoyed a free lunch Wednesday to celebrate the initiative, the first major local effort as part of the companywide Cox Conserves program.

The roughly 104,000 kilowatt hours the system is expected to generate each year will all be sold to Georgia Power, said Aaron Brown, alternative energy manager for Cox Enterprises, the parent company of Cox Communications.

“Thank you for really pushing us to the next level,” William Houser, Georgia Power renewable resources project manager, told Cox executives.

Georgia Power will sell the power to customers who opt to pay a premium for cleaner energy. This enables Cox to earn three times as much over the savings it would realize by simply using the power itself, said Steve Bradley, directing of engineering and alternative energy for Cox Enterprises. He said it will take the company just under three years to earn back its investment.

The array will be the second-largest of its kind on the Georgia Power grid, Cox officials said.

The largest is also a Cox project, in Stockbridge, said Mike Mannheimer, a vice president for Cox Enterprises.

The Cox Conserves program began in 2007 with the goal of reducing the company’s carbon footprint by 20 percent during the following decade, Mannheimer said. The company has installed nine photovoltaic solar arrays since then, he said.

That’s enough to power about 450 homes, Bradley said.

The Cox Conserves program also focuses on reducing water and electricity consumption, building more energy-efficient buildings and developing a more fuel-efficient vehicle fleet.

The company has installed interactive computer kiosks so employees can learn more about these technologies and also monitor the energy production of the Macon solar array in real time. Even in the rain Wednesday, it was generating a little power.

Bradley, who oversees alternative energy implementation for Cox Conserves, noted that the company receives other benefits for the Macon project.

The panels shade the roof, reducing energy costs; and the income from the solar array is a hedge against future energy price increases.

“It’s not just doing the right thing for the environment, it’s doing the right thing for business,” Bradley said. “And that’s what we hope to show everyone.”

Cox also received federal and state tax breaks for the project: a 35 percent state reduction and a 30 percent federal reduction in taxes on the capital costs, Mannheimer and Bradley said. Mannheimer declined to share the total cost of the project but said it exceeded $400,000.

Mary Bowman Huff, Cox community relations manager and local Cox Conserves coordinator, said the Macon office also has taken other steps to reduce its use of natural resources by encouraging employees and customers to switch to paperless billing and paychecks, and by switching field service representatives to a four-day work week to reduce highway emissions.

Randy Evans, a customer retention specialist at Cox in Macon, said the company campaign has changed some of his behaviors.

“The biggest single change I made was moving to compact fluorescent lights in my house,” he said. At first he was reluctant because of the cost, but when he replaced all 24 bulbs in his home he saw a consistent savings of 10 percent in his monthly energy bills, he said.

Cox also began last fall offering cash incentives to employees who carpool, but the company found that carpooling didn’t catch on among employees who hail from a variety of cities and whose shifts change day to day, Huff and Evans said.

Huff has since created a quarterly Green Champion award that offers cash rewards for winning ideas from employees who have gone greener.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.