April 08, 2013

Capturing Sunlight on an Open Hillside

Out of all of the things that I want out of life, beauty might be first and foremost.

I think nature is beautiful. I hike through its vast reaches, its undulating terrain, its meadows and plains and fields and rocks and creeks and canyons and boulders and flowers, under its sun and clouds and stars and moon.

But when I hike up high, I look down at the city below, and that's beautiful to me too. I love manmade things. I find beauty in buildings, folk art, trains, planes, mines, and neon signs. I relish in the ruins of a past modern age. I am drawn to poured concrete, cracked pavement, and sunken cities.

As much as I long to see nature undisturbed, I love driving my car along paved roads. I love hiking along official, cleared trails. I don't see what the point is of open space if no one can get to it, or get through it.

Man's influence on the land that surrounds him doesn't necessarily have to be interpreted as ruination. But his attempts at helping the environment under the guidance of modern technology - namely, wind farms and solar panels - are often deemed as such.

And usually, it's because people think they're an eyesore.

Occidental College (home of the Moore Laboratory of Zoology) recently embarked on a controversial campaign to install a 4886-panel solar array on three acres of a southwest-facing hillside of its campus that borders the Eagle Rock, Highland Park, and Mt. Washington communities.

Some neighbors had a hissyfit, largely influenced by the recent installation of the Montecito Heights solar array, which sparked a heated debate because of how high it stood off the ground and how visible it was from how far away.

Oxy was tasked with installing something that would not only convert sunlight into 12% of their electrical power on campus, and despite its hefty price tag would pay for itself in 12 years, but would also be visually appealing, and would work with the landscape.

Down below, near the soccer fields, the first panels you see are above corrugated metal sheets that overhang the parking area. It is a certain industrial chic that I found beautiful to view from below. In the desert, someone would be watering the undersides of those things to rust them up.

Above the soccer fields, the panels come into view, unfortunately behind a chain link fence. The slope is steep, and the edges sharp, no place for drunken coeds to stumble through in the dark.

The array keeps a low profile, its panels mounted only two to three feet above the ground...

...with (seeded) wildflowers rising up around them.

They'll have to be trimmed several times a year...

...since any shade cast from a high-sprouting plant will knock out the efficiency of the entire plate.

The panels are mounted onto poured concrete pylons buried deep into the ground...

...but their bolts can be loosened so that they can be tilted to cascade with the curvature of the hillside, hugging the topography of the slope.

Although the panels themselves are black, they are, by their nature, reflective - not only of the sun's light, but also of the blue sky itself, its clouds, and - if you're lucky to catch it - of the sunset.

One of the largest ground-mounted arrays in LA, it is relatively unobtrusive, appearing as a mere speck from a distance. And because it was designed not only by engineers and mathematicians but also by architects [Ed: credit due to design think tank Lettuce Office, and its principal designer Kara Bartelt], it has the appearance of public art.

You can hike up all around it, and then up past it to the top of Mount Fuji...

...where you can look down upon the array...

...and stumble upon a long-eroded survey marker.

Predictably, it's sunny and hot up there on Fuji Hill during the day. They say it's a popular drinking spot at night. I wonder what might have happened to it if not for the solar array installation - what trampling may have occurred, what terrible tumbling accident may have called for its grading, what inanimate monument may have gotten mounted on it.

Now, although it's been developed,  industrialized, solarized, it somehow feels wild, pristine, untouchable. It may not be a living thing, per se, as the designers might argue, but it is...beautiful.

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