In its heyday, Alcatraz prison locked up mobsters like Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Rock is going solar.
In its heyday, Alcatraz prison locked up mobsters like Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis. Now, the famous penitentiary in San Francisco Bay will capture something new: the sun's rays.
On Friday, the National Park Service announced it will fund a project to put roughly 1,360 solar panels on the main prison and laundry building at Alcatraz Island. The panels, which are scheduled to be installed later this spring, will provide 40 to 60 percent of the electricity for the iconic island, reducing the need for two aging diesel generators that currently keep Alcatraz's lights on — yet which also belch out heavy smog and cost $700,000 a year to fuel and maintain.
"The long-term goal is to create a fully sustainable island that uses 100 percent renewable energy," said Michael Feinstein, a spokesman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which oversees Alcatraz.
"There are about 1 million visitors to Alcatraz a year, and we want to make it a showplace for green energy."
The project will be funded through President Barack Obama's stimulus program. Last year, the National Park Service received $754 million in stimulus funding.
Those funds went to hundreds of projects, from fixing campgrounds at Denali National Park in Alaska to rebuilding the seawall at the Statue of Liberty in New York. It also went toward paving aging roads, fixing wastewater treatment plants and building trails at more than 250 other national parks.
But bids on the projects were so much lower than expected, the park service ended up with an extra $129 million. On Friday, park officials announced that money would be spent on 68 new projects, including the Alcatraz solar panels.
"Because of the economy, the contractors are so hungry, their bids are coming in at less than we estimated. So now all of a sudden we've got extra money," said Dave Barna, a spokesman for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C.
"This is good news for taxpayers. It's spreading the money to more parks, and more projects. We're getting more bang for the buck. The dollars are going further."
Federal law requires stimulus projects to have signed contracts by September, Barna said. As a result, the money will not fund major long-term efforts like new visitor centers, but maintenance work, upgrades and projects that can be quickly started to create jobs.
Among the other 68 new projects funded Friday are solar panels on buildings in Death Valley National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore; sealing 130 miles of roads in Grand Canyon; and replacing the roof at Rocky Mountain National Park visitor center
The cost estimates for individual projects are not being made public, Barna said, so that companies bidding on the work won't inflate bids that otherwise might have come in lower.
At Alcatraz, one question sure to arise is what impact 1,300 dark blue solar panels will have on the historic nature of the site. The island was home to an Army base after California gained statehood in 1850 and then became a jail. From 1934 to 1963, the famous Spanish Mission-style federal prison operated there, giving birth to legends like Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud and Frank Morris, whose attempt to break out was portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the 1979 movie "Escape from Alcatraz."
Liz Varnhagen, an environmental compliance specialist with the park service in San Francisco, said that the estimated 896 solar panels planned for the main prison roof will be obscured because there are walls roughly five feet high around the top.
"You will not be able to see them on the main prison building roof," she said.
On the laundry building, a long thin structure on the northwest side of the main prison, the estimated 464 panels will be more visible, she said. Together the two arrays will provide 285 kilowatts of electricity, about as much as 90 typical home systems.
Historic preservation officials from the park service have approved the project, and California's state historic preservation officer, who had concerns about the panels, also has given preliminary approval, requiring that the panels on the laundry building be installed flat to the roof.
San Francisco is famous for political battles over nearly any historic building. But so far, at least one leading environmental organization said it likes the idea of a green Alcatraz.
"We encouraged them to apply for the funds," said Ron Sundergill, Pacific region director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group in Oakland, Calif. He cited the need to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions at all national parks.
"We want the solar panels to be put in the most opportune place as far as taking advantage of the sun," he said. "Also, we want them to be as unobtrusive as possible."