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."

On the web: http://ed-mmckelve-sb.education.illinois.edu/icap-pg/project/solar-farm

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jdmac44 wrote on November 02, 2012 at 9:11 am

Hmm, I looked into solar energy when I bought my house two and a half years ago.  With the amount of sunlight that we receive at our latitude, it would take about 50 years to recoup the costs of the photovoltaic (PV) panels and other equipment with the government subsidy, but the usable life of the PV panels were only about 25 years.  Sounds like a nice way to get the federal taxpayers to pay your power bill.  And where did the money for the Climate Action Plan come from?  Why The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 of course!  Thanks for flushing more money down the toilet Mr. President.

serf wrote on November 03, 2012 at 10:11 am

I'd echo the sentiments of others by questioning your math skills.  You were either gravely mistaken when you calculated, or you're trolling.  I'm speculating it's the latter based on your ability to turn this into a political issue.

Mark Taylor wrote on November 03, 2012 at 11:11 am

Don't let these liberal trolls get you down, brother. Keep preaching the truth about this EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO OUR VERY REPUBLIC brought to us by these silly liberal unicorn chasers.

EL YATIRI wrote on November 05, 2012 at 6:11 am
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Real americans favor fossil fuels eh Mark?  When BP spills oil and pollutes beaches and fishing waters, real americans apologize to the oil company.

Mark Taylor wrote on November 05, 2012 at 8:11 am

Well, THIS REAL AMERICAN certainly does apologize for all the abuse and calumny that has been SHOVED DOWN OUR THROAT regarding the poor, misunderstood, and totally beneficientalistical petro industry.

So, oil industry, on behalf of all Americans -- both real AND fake -- will you please accept the apology of the American people? We have been unfair and we apologize.

Will it make it better if we offer to pay another few bucks per gallon? Really, we'd be glad to to make up for our bad behavior toward you lately.

Just let us know. And thank you, fossil fuel industry; thanks for all you do for us.

cbrads334 wrote on November 02, 2012 at 12:11 pm
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I notice that you didn't cite any sources for your claim that it would take 50 years to recoup the initial expense of installing a solar energy system for your home.  It's funny, but Germany, which is also a country mostly north of our U.S. latitude (excluding, of course, Alaska and perhaps parts of the far northern U.S.) leads the world in solar energy implementation. 

I also investigated converting my home to solar energy.  There are two ways to power a system.  Total solar is prohibitive in installation and storage costs, however, a system which keeps you connected to the grid, and sells back the excess energy you produce during day hours, drastically reduces the amount of energy you need to buy from a supplier.  The FACTS are out there if you do some research.

I suspect you're one of those who gets all of their news from Fox "news" channel.  Enough said.

asparagus wrote on November 02, 2012 at 12:11 pm

@jdmac44, well said.

pattsi wrote on November 02, 2012 at 12:11 pm

I just tourned the Equinox House yesterday and I might add finally. This is the house that Ty Newell, a retired UIUC engineering professor, built not only as a home for his family, but as a test lab to find out how to build a sustainable house, meaning one that can function on solar energy. He has now added an electric car to the data that he is collecting. He often offers tours and is more than delighted to share and talk about the data collected so far, lessons learned, calculations of costs vs. savings, pratical aspects, etc. We are so lucky to experiment central as to how to build sustainably via the work of Ty, Julie Birdwell--straw bale construction, and Katrin Klingenberg--passive house design. 

Equinox House is on Haydon in Berringer Commons. The straw bale house is on East Main in Urbana. Passive Houses can be seen on Fairview, Urbana and Oak off of north 130.

Avalon wrote on November 02, 2012 at 3:11 pm

During the recent national tour of solar homes, I visited a 5,000sq ft home east of Urbana (not the Equinox home) which appeared to be of standard appearance on the outside but was built with  energy efficient construction and geo thermal. The owner had a solar array placed on the property and has had his utility bills at $18 since that time. He has also placed his surplus energy back into the utility's grid and has credit of over 4,000kWh that he can use whenever he needs to. He anticipates a "payback" of 10 years or less and is actually getting a better return on his solar investment than having his money in the bank. He hopes to get an hybrid electric car in the future which he will charge with solar energy. Solar modules are warranted on power output for 25 years and are designed for a service life to up to 40 years.


Solar works in Illinois. Anyone who says it does not is misinformed and behind the times.

pk1187 wrote on November 02, 2012 at 4:11 pm

This sounds like a great idea and I'm glad that the sustainability fee will finally be used for something. I was very upset when the wind turbines didnt get built. I just hope that Urbana residents don't start crying about this like they did for the wind turbines.

Mark Taylor wrote on November 03, 2012 at 9:11 am

Well, I KNOW that solar doesn't work because Rush Limbaugh makes fun of it all the time -- why would he do that if it wasn't typtical liberal stumblebum jokery and, simultansously, a feindish leftist nazi communistic United Nations plot to DESTROY OUR LIBERTY and give it to the third world?????22?

So, on a typical day, I go through about 80-90 cycles of alternating between chuckling smugly at this silly liberal pipedreamery and quaking in my boots in fear of the fiendish New World Order plot to destroy America and sell our freedom to the non western world.

Either way, I know this is wrong and I'M AGAINST IT!!!!!11!!

Orbiter wrote on November 03, 2012 at 10:11 pm

"UI plans solar farm near research park" Hmm. I thought all farms are solar. How are they growing those corn plants, anyway?

asparagus wrote on November 04, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Solar, currently, is a losing proposition. I wanted desperately to have a solar installation at my house which is perfectly situated for such.  It just isn't feasible with installation costs and panel performance.

This solar farm is a nice idea but not pragmatically sound, and not a wise investment of public monies.

I wish it was, but it just IS NOT!

PC derived spending on this is sad.

 

Mark Taylor wrote on November 05, 2012 at 8:11 am

I know. And we, as a university, NEVER SHOULD HAVE SUPPORTED LEDS AND INTEGRATED CIRCUITS!!!!11!!!

THOSE WERE LOSING PROPOSITIONS TOO!!!!

Edison was a dang fool for developing a new technology that was way more expensive and less practical than candle wax.

Dang technological advancement. Hrmppph!!

We have enough oil to last 1000 years and it doesn't do a ding dang thing to the dang environment.

Scientists and people who 'know' about scientific research are nothing more than CHICAGO UNION PC THUGS stepping on the throat of the poor abused petro industry who only want flowers and unicorn puppies for everyone.

WHY WON'T YOU LEAVE THEM ALOOOOOOOOOOONE??????22???

syzlack wrote on November 05, 2012 at 8:11 am

Well, I used to think Mark Taylor was being amusingly satirical.  But after the Sunday editorial section of the Snooze, I realize that he is dead serious, and is in reality, John Foreman.

RHANNAH wrote on November 09, 2012 at 8:11 am

The Cost of Solar has dropped dramatically in the last two years. There is a 30% federal tax credit and a state rebate program that provides up to $10,000.00. My 10,810 watt system will pay for it self in less than 14 years. It is guarenteed for 25 years. This is protecting me from any future electric rate increases. In effect  freezing my electric rate for at least 25 years and  probably about 40 years, the estimated life of the system. My system is oversized for a future electric car so I spent more than nessasary to power just my house, hense the 14 year payback could have been 10 years if I just put in enough solar to power my house. I have over 5,000 kwh banked at ameren since the april install.