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Solar saves money at an isolated pipeline site

The Panhandle Eastern Pipeline Company has given solar power a slap on the back and a firm handshake. Electricity converted from sunlight is now a working partner for the company's natural gas operations in southwestern Wyoming.

The company found that transmitting electricity by long-distant wire to its remote pipeline control stations was extremely expensive. To save money, it turned to on-site solar power.

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For example, when a decision was made recently to locate a station between the towns of Rock Springs and Green River, Panhandle discovered that building an electric power line, connecting with an existing line only six miles away, would cost about $100,000. In comparison, a panel of 288 solar cells could be built and installed at a one-time cost of $5,700 with virtually no maintenance.

The electricity is needed to separate hydrocarbon liquids from natural gas. In Wyoming's Red Desert, where Panhandle has 10 stations, this is especially true. As natural gas flows into the gathering pipelines en route to larger distribution pipelines, the liquids begin to separate out -- hampering the flow of gas.

Electric power runs the ''automatic ball launchers'' which clear out liquids in the pipe. About twice a day, the ball launcher drops rubber spheres into the pipeline. The balls help push hydrocarbon liquids through the line to a compressor station in Tipton, where they are stored and ultimately sold.

Because Panhandle officials say they are ''trying out'' the solar power device, they are reluctant to give out the results in savings.

''A few years from now we will have reams of data,'' said a company spokesman , who added that ''it would not be accurate to publish a bunch of 'savings' figures'' now.

Panhandle uses solar cells in other ways. They run the safety systems -- gas and flame detectors and an alarm horn - at the Wyoming Storm Creek booster station. Solar energy also powers four UHF radio repeaters at strategic Wyoming high points, such as the 7,600-foot White Mountain outside Rock Springs. The repeaters allow radio contact between far-flung Panhandle units beyond the normal eight-mile average range of a vehicle radio. In Colorado, the same kinds of UHF stations assist in maintaining remote engine alarm systems for the company.

Discussing this turn to solar, the company's quarterly publication said recently that ''contrary to popular opinion, it is not the radiant bright sunshiny kind of day's sunlight that activates the solar cell. Rather, it is the ultraviolet component in the sun's rays which causes this seeming miracle to happen.''

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Also, ''on bright, moonlit nights the sun's rays being reflected off the face of the moon and back to earth are sufficient to activate the solar cells, although at an obviously reduced rate from the daylight hours.''

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