The United States’ first solar-powered movie theatre is right down the street. Since 2004, San Luis Obispo’s Palm Theatre has created solar energy utilized by the theater, homes and other businesses nearby.
Jim Dee, who has owned the Palm Theatre since its opening in 1988, said the energy generated from his building feeds into a power grid-tie system for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E).
“You can imagine us as a power plant and we’re creating energy that’s going into the grid,” Dee said of his theatre. “PG&E is essentially paying me for that.”
Before his deal with PG&E, Dee paid around $1,200 to $1,500 a month on the theater’s electric bill alone. Now he pays less than $100 a month, almost breaking even with his energy costs and usage.
Dee decided to create a mini-solar plant on his roof for both business and environmental reasons. He talked to PG&E president John Ewan for a few years before deciding to create a mini-solar plant.
“It makes sense for a business (like the Palm Theatre) to want to control its overhead costs,” Ewan said.
Pacific Energy Company provided all 98 top-rated, high-performance solar modules for the theater.
The solar modules were created by Camarillo-based company Solar World California. The modules contain photovoltaic cells that instantaneously convert light — not heat — into electricity.
Dee first installed 80 photovoltaic solar modules but added 18 after he saw the success of his roof conversion, Ewan said.
The original 80 panels eliminate approximately 22,152 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per year; each of the additional 18 modules contain 25 percent more power and eliminate 25 percent more pounds of carbon dioxide annually than any of the previous panels.
The modules create energy during the day. The further the sun moves from its highest point in the sky, the less energy the modules collect, which means they generate different amounts of energy each season.
The modules, installed by Miller Solar, face the sun’s highest point. During a good day — which Dee describes as cool, yet sunny — the modules can create up to 10.5 kilowatts an hour and 80 to 90 kilowatts a day. The Palm Theatre uses a combined total of 100 kilowatts daily for the six to seven hours it operates.
The theater uses approximately 2 kilowatts of energy for each of its three theater projector bulbs.
The popcorn machine is the second main source of energy consumption. The kettle that heats the popcorn takes a lot of power to maintain a stable temperature.
The bright white roof of the Palm Theatre also helps to conserve energy that would otherwise be lost to air-conditioning on hot days. The membrane-material that makes up the roof cools the building during summer through its reflection, so the theater doesn’t have to run the air conditioning as often.
For both the solar modules and the special roof, Dee received $35,000 in rebates from the state government for “going green.”
After the rebates, the initial installation costs of $120,000 for the solar module set-up proved to be a savvy investment.
“The initial costs were very high, but the long-term benefits are good,” Dee said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Businesses that plan to operate for more than 10 years should invest in green energy, he said. Movie theaters are perfect for solar power because operation hours usually spike at night, after all of the solar power is collected.
Dee has gotten media attention for the Palm Theatre’s energy conversion to solar power over the past six years. The Tribune featured the Palm on the front page when it first installed the solar modules.
Dee said he doesn’t think people will want to go to the Palm Theatre just because they hear from the local media it’s solar-powered but he thinks it could benefit his business.
“I think people feel good about supporting a business that does what we do,” Dee said
Cal Poly biological sciences junior Shannon Gonzalez said she enjoys attending a sustainable theater like the Palm.
“I think it’s really cool that they were able to do that because not many other businesses are making it a priority to (be sustainable),” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez also likes the overall experience the Palm Theatre provides, she said.
“It’s a really cool atmosphere — not super fancy like other movie theaters,” Gonzalez said. “Their movies are different; you don’t exactly go there for a mainstream film.”
Because of the Palm Theatre’s tendency to mainly show independent, arthouse or foreign films, it is able to keep concession costs, such as popcorn, down.
The Palm Theatre is located at 817 Palm St. in downtown San Luis Obispo. Tickets are $5 for matinee showings and $8 otherwise.