Stimulus Cash Helps Alcatraz Capture Sunlight

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Last year, the National Parks Service received $754 million in stimulus cash to fix up aging infrastructure everywhere from Yosemite to Shenandoah. Thanks to a bad economy and contractors hungry for work, the money went farther than anyone had expected, leaving Parks officials with an "extra" $129 million to spend, fast. So what's useful, expensive and quick to design and install? Solar panels. Alcatraz is one of the parks receiving a solar boost. But on this historic landmark, there's an extra hurdle: All 1,300 panels must be hidden from view. Amy Standen reports.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Yosemite, of course, was a lifelong fascination for Ansel Adams and it recently received a park system boost - $6.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Money will go to restoring historic buildings and purchasing new hybrid shuttle buses for the park's 3.5 million annual visitors, among other projects.

Overall, the National Park System received $750 million from the stimulus package. Amy Standen reports from another national icon, Alcatraz Island, where stimulus dollars are helping to solve a decades-old problem.

(Soundbite of bells and ocean waves)

AMY STANDEN: Even with 5,000 visitors a day, Alcatraz still sounds like a lonely place - the relentless gulls, the buoys, the click-clunks of thuds of the old cell block doors. But there's one place where all the sounds of the island are eclipsed by a single giant roar.

(Soundbite of a boom)

STANDEN: A sound so loud, we have to put in earplugs just to get near it.

(Soundbite of generators)

STANDEN: Here, two aging diesel generators alternate back and forth 24 hours a day. Every light bulb on the island draws its power from here. Getting power to Alcatraz has always been problem because it's an island, everything comes by boat. The same ferries that bring tourists also haul 50,000 gallons of diesel gasoline each year. Fresh water is shipped in, trash shipped out sewage from those 5,000 daily visitors - that has to leave by boat too.

But thanks to the stimulus, these boats will soon have less to carry. Thats because the island is being fitted with solar panels to supply more than half its electricity needs.

(Soundbite of squeaking gate)

STANDEN: The panels will go up on the roof through a squeaky iron cell block gate and up a narrow staircase of crumbling concrete.

Up here the sun is blinding. It's a perfect place for solar panes, with one catch: Alcatraz is a national landmark, which means that these 1300 dark blue solar panels, up here and on a nearby building, will have to be hidden from public view.

Still, John Ryan, manager for the project, thinks he can make it work.

Mr. JOHN RYAN (Manager): Up here on the cell house roof, we have a little more leniency from our State Historic Preservation Office, so these can be on a slight angle here, because of the parapet wall all around here protects it from visual.

STANDEN: Workers will also have to hide a massive solar battery system to help power the island when sun doesnt shine. Luckily, if there is one thing Alcatraz has in spades its big, desolate interior spaces like this one.

(Soundbite of crunching)

STANDEN: Broken glass litters the floor of whats called the New Industries Building. Here, Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly once hunched over sewing machines and scrubbed dirty sheets shipped in from the mainland.

Alex Picavet works for the park service.

Ms. ALEX PICAVET (Public Affairs Specialist, National Park Service): They did mending. They did actually sew from scratch. They, you know, starched and ironed. And it was part of the way that Alcatraz was supporting itself.

STANDEN: Now that support comes from ticket sales to a million annual tourists and from the federal stimulus package. But, in fact, putting solar panels on Alcatraz wasnt part of the Park Service's original plan at all. Initially, the stimulus money was earmarked for other projects, like restoring roads and buildings and parks from Yosemite to Shenandoah.

David Barna works for the Park Service. He says when they started getting bids back from contractors, they were pleasantly surprised.

Mr. DAVID BARNA (Chief of Public Affairs, National Park Service): Those estimates came in about 20 percent less than we anticipated and that gave us a big chunk of money, $129 million, that we've now taken that money back to pick up lower priority projects - about 30 projects across the country.

(Soundbite of seagulls)

STANDEN: And thats where Alcatraz comes in. Under federal law all stimulus cash must be spent by September 30th to create jobs as soon as possible. So solar panels, which are quick to design and install, were an obvious choice. Here on Alcatraz, the panels go up this summer.

For NPR News, Im Amy Standen.

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