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Panel Planting

Solar farms sprouting up on campuses
University Business, June 2012
Middlebury College expects to earn $5,000 to $10,000 from the sale of electricity from its 34-solar-tracker solar farm on campus.
Middlebury College expects to earn $5,000 to $10,000 from the sale of electricity from its 34-solar-tracker solar farm on campus.

With dropping solar prices, state and federal incentives, and innovative financing models, the crop of campus solar installations has become a healthy one. In fact, installed solar capacity grew 450 percent from 2008 to 2011, when the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) launched its Campus Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Installations Database.

“The higher education solar market has continued to grow in spite of the difficult economic climate,” says Niles Barnes, projects coordinator for AASHE. “Since 2009, the median project size has grown six-fold as institutions deploy systems large enough to meet an increasing energy load.”

With a finite amount of campus roof space and not every roof having the right sun orientation for solar panels, ground-mounted solar PV farms are a common alternative—or addition—to the roof-mounted panels most people picture. The largest completed roof-mount installation in AASHE’s database has the capacity to generate 1,600kW of electricity. To compare, the largest ground- or pole-mount installation has a capacity of 6,000kW.

The just-completed solar farm at Middlebury College (Vt.) consists of 34 solar trackers on a nearly two-acre spot. “That’d be a pretty big roof,” quips Jack Byrne, director of sustainability integration at the college, which also has solar panels on the roofs of two buildings. The new system will produce about 15 times the power of the existing panels, due to its size, and GPS and wireless technologies that allow the trackers to actively follow the sun throughout the day. Fifteen is the same number of days the entire installation took, says Andrew Savage of AllEarth Renewables, the manufacturer chosen for the project, which was installed by Backspin Renewables.

Both companies are Vermont-based, Byrne says, an attractive part of a deal that has cost the college nothing. “We will make $5,000 to $10,000 from the sale of the electricity back to the utility.” Middlebury leases the system, and in five years, college officials will decide whether to purchase it or terminate the contract. In the meantime, the site will be used by faculty and students for research.

Another recently completed solar farm is the result of a partnership between Rider University (N.J.) and Public Service Electric and Gas Company, which is constructing 22 solar installations throughout the state (including four ground-mounted ones) as part of its Solar 4 All program.

The project is located on a 3.2-acre field that system owner PSE&G leases from Rider, which has a main campus of about 275 acres. “The power we generate goes directly into the grid for PSE&G,” explains Mike Rica, associate vice president for facilities and auxiliary services at the university. Developing and utilizing energy alternatives like solar power, he says, is important for the local and regional economy. (To supplement its own power supply, Rider is beginning a project to build a co-generation plant on campus.)

Had all gone as planned, Rider’s solar farm would have been an educational facility, too, located on a section of wetlands that couldn’t be developed anyhow. When regulations prevented that, an alternative site not in use was found, Rica shares. “We could have walked away, but it was well worth it in the end. We got a lot of good exposure on this, and feel like we’re doing a good thing for society.”

Campus Solar Farm Stars: Top 10 Ground or Pole Mount Solar Project Installations
Institution Year Complete Capacity (kW)
West Hills Community College District (Calif.) 2011 6,000
United States Air Force Academy (Colo.) 2011 6,000
Arizona Western College 2011 5,000
Colorado State University* 2010 3,300
Arizona State University* 2011 2,677
University of Maryland, Eastern Shore 2009 2,200
Arizona State University* 2011 2,124
Colorado State University* 2009 2,000
Florida Gulf Coast University 2008 2,000
Arizona State University* 2011 1,976

SOURCE: AASHE Campus Solar Photovoltaic Installations Database, as of April 2012; database includes information on 469 installations on 293 campuses. *Denotes separate installations on the same campus.