UI plans solar farm near research park
CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois plans to build a solar farm along Windsor Road west of First Street that could supply about 2 percent of campus energy needs.
The 20.5-acre farm, to be installed in an open field near the Canadian National Railroad tracks, would require a $5.3 million campus subsidy for the first 10 years but would provide virtually free energy after that, and would move the UI closer to its renewable energy targets under a 2010 Climate Action Plan, officials said.
The solar farm would be the first major project completed under the Climate Action Plan, which pledged that 5 percent of campus energy needs would come from renewable sources by 2015, and 25 percent by 2025.
If approved, it will be built through a public-private partnership on UI-owned land. A private firm — Phoenix Solar Inc. of San Ramon, Calif. — would design, build and operate the farm for the first 10 years, allowing the project to take advantage of clean-energy tax incentives, officials said.
The UI would buy all of the energy produced from Phoenix Solar through a power-purchase agreement, paying the company about $1.5 million a year or a total of about $15.5 million over 10 years, said Heather Haberaecker, UI executive assistant vice president for business and finance.
That's about $5.3 million more than it would cost to provide the same energy from conventional sources, but the idea is to move the campus toward renewable energy sources, UI officials said. After 10 years, the university will own and operate the farm at little or no cost, other than an annual warranty fee that is part of the $15.5 million, officials said.
"That's when the savings will really start accruing to us," Haberaecker said.
The public-private partnership also allows the UI to finance the project over 10 years, rather than paying for it up front, Johnston said.
The solar panels are guaranteed for at least 20 years, but industry experts say their lifespan could be twice as long, she said.
To help cover the subsidy, the UI's Student Sustainability Committee has tentatively pledged just over $1 million of the cost, using revenue from a student sustainability fee. A final vote is expected on Nov. 30.
UI trustees will review the project at their meeting in Springfield on Thursday. If it's approved, the site would be cleared by March and installation completed by next fall, when the farm could start generating power for the campus, said Morgan Johnston, sustainability coordinator for UI Facilities and Services.
The cost of connecting to the campus power grid is also included in the $15.5 million, she said.
As a developing technology, alternative energy is more costly than coal or other conventional sources and will likely remain that way for the next five or 10 years, officials said.
"I don't know of a renewable energy project that costs less than conventional energy," said Jack Dempsey, executive director of UI facilities and services.
"This project is primarily about following up on our commitments," Johnston added.
It would be the UI's first solar farm, though solar panels were installed on the Business Instructional Facility and others are planned for the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building.
The first project under the Climate Action Plan, a wind turbine on the south farms, never made it to fruition. The initial plan for three turbines was put on hold because of cost considerations in 2008. A scaled-back plan for one turbine surfaced in 2010 but was suspended again after objections from neighbors and the city of Urbana. Neighbors had complained about potential noise and disruption from the 400-foot turbines just outside Urbana city limits.
UI junior Marika Nell, chairwoman of the Student Sustainability Committee, doesn't expect the same level of opposition with the solar farm.
"The wind turbine had issues of visibility and property values," Nell said. "I think this has a better chance of working well with the community around it. ... The financials of this project are better overall."
The UI sent a letter to nearby homeowners asking for input, and the major concern was a possible glare from the solar panels, Johnston said. She said the dark panels are engineered to absorb sunlight for energy, not reflect it.
Neighbors also wanted to ensure that the public will still have access to the pond at the site. Johnson said the solar panels will be installed west of the pond, which will remain fully accessible for fishing and other activities. The project has been approved by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, she said.
The site was formerly used by the Department of Crop Sciences and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. The College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences has agreed to move the research elsewhere on the south farms, Johnston said.
Nell said the Student Sustainability Committee unanimously endorsed the project, with a few stipulations, in a straw poll in late October, so administrators could take the project to UI trustees this month. The committee tentatively agreed to contribute $350,000 a year for the next three years from the student sustainability fee, which generates $1.4 million annually.
"We need to move forward on renewable energy, and we need to be a leader even if it's going to cost us a little bit, to show people we can do this," said Brian Deal, professor of urban and regional planning, who helped draft the campus Climate Action Plan,
"We're going to offset our coal use. Every kilowatt we produce at that solar farm means a kilowatt that we don't buy from Ameren. ... Every kilowatt is a net savings in our carbon footprint."