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Salk Institute Puts $26M Into Electrical and Mechanical Upgrades

SALK INSTITUTE FOR BIOLOGICAL STUDIES

President: William R. Brody, M.D., Ph.D.

Chairman of the board: Irwin Jacobs.

Revenue, grants and other support: $122 million in 2010; $103 million in 2009.

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No. of employees: More than 1,000, including 850-plus scientific staff.

Intellectual property: Research has led to 350 U.S. patents and more than 250 license agreements with pharmaceutical, biotechnology and reagent supply companies. In addition, 22 startup companies have been founded to develop institute technology.

Headquarters: La Jolla.

Year founded: 1963.

Mission of organization: To better understand the fundamental principles of biology and create groundbreaking discoveries that help explain human diseases and how they can be treated.

The iconic Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla has embarked on a sweeping $26 million energy retrofit project that includes covering virtually all of its rooftop space with more than 2,300 solar panels and replacing its original electrical and mechanical gear, which dated back to the early 1960s.

“Our equipment was at the end of its life cycle and we were nearing catastrophic failure,” said Tim Ball, senior director of facilities services for Salk, an independent research institute that has played a central role in making San Diego a global biotech force. “If any of that equipment failed, we go dark and we lose research. It was critical risk management.”

Salk’s scientific discoveries, focused mainly on human disease, have led to a number of local biotech start-ups, including Ligand Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Neurocrine Biosciences Inc., the latter of which has grown to become one of San Diego’s largest public companies.

The institute was founded by Jonas Salk, the doctor who developed the polio vaccine, while the concrete campus was designed by famous architect Louis Kahn — two key factors that helped land the institute on the local register of historic places in 1991.

Swapping Out 1962 Gear

But since the campus was built in 1962, Salk’s energy demands have increased greatly, Ball said. Research has become more reliant on computers and today’s scientists are working around the clock; if they have a thought in the middle of the night, they’re encouraged to come in at that moment and get to work before the idea is lost, he said.

To keep the discoveries churning, there can be no disruption in power as the institute replaces its old, bulky equipment. “It’s like having a race car on a racetrack, and finishing the race without any pit stops,” he said. “You have to change the tires and refuel without stopping the car.”

The energy retrofit project is funded by bonds and a rebate from the California Solar Initiative and will result in energy savings of about $500,000 per year, Ball said. But even more important than the energy savings, he said, is that the new equipment gives the institute peace of mind that it can reliably serve its roughly 1,000 employees and hundreds of ongoing research projects.

Sensitive Site, Careful Execution

While the solar panels represent just a fraction of the overall project cost — coming in at just over $2 million — it has required a lion’s share of the planning because of the institute’s historic architecture. Also, because the campus is located on nearly 30 acres bordering the coast, it had to comply with the Coastal Commission’s rules for construction.

“You can’t change your neighbor’s viewpoint and you can’t put something really ugly on your building,” Ball said.

That required careful execution from Stellar Solar, the Carlsbad-based company that was awarded the contract.

“There are a whole lot of considerations at a historic site,” Stellar Solar President Kent Harle said. “The panels had to be completely out of sight.”

Panels now cover the top of the four main Salk buildings, a space that’s roughly the size of four football fields, Harle said. “When we started the project, we didn’t know what to expect to find on roofs of buildings that were 50 years old,” he said. “But they are very wide open and clean and very flat.” That makes for good sun exposure, he noted. The power generated from the solar panels, about one-half of a megawatt, will account for about 10 percent of Salk’s total energy usage. The rest will be supplied traditionally from San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

Applause From a Preservationist

Vonn Marie May, an architectural consultant in Encinitas with a focus on historic preservation, said she applauds Salk for going green. “If all of the solar panels are not within any public view, then that’s perfectly fine,” she said. “I would even say that it’s smart and noble.”

May co-authored Salk’s 2005 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places along with La Jolla architect Jeffrey Shorn. She said she considers the Salk Institute to be one of the most important architectural sites in San Diego and in the U.S.

“Jonas Salk told Louis Khan to build something that Picasso would want to come see,’” May said. “The architecture almost subsumes Salk’s legacy.”

Khan probably never envisioned that Salk’s buildings would be topped with solar panels, Ball acknowledged. Yet the architect “created an environment that allowed for it to happen so we didn’t have to change anything,” Ball said. “If you were to stand outside you would never know that all of this is here. That’s cool, but at the same time you kind of want people to know.”

Ball said the project is on track to be completed before the end of the year.

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