Some question site for proposed UI solar farm

CHAMPAIGN — While pleased about the prospect of a solar farm at the University of Illinois, some sustainability advocates and community residents are questioning the UI's choice of a site.

The News-Gazette reported Friday that the campus plans to build a solar farm in an open field near the southwest corner of Windsor Road and First Street, on UI-owned land now used by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. The 20.5-acre farm would be built through a public-private partnership with Phoenix Solar Inc. of San Ramon, Calif.

The firm would design, build and operate the farm for the first 10 years, and the UI would buy all the energy produced there under a $15.5 million power-purchase agreement. After 10 years the UI would own the solar farm and have access to the energy produced at little or no cost, advocates say.

If approved by UI trustees this week, the farm is projected to provide about 1.8 percent of the UI's current energy needs, and as much as 2.1 percent in coming years.

The UI would pay about $5.3 million more for the energy over the first 10 years than it would cost to produce it from conventional sources, according to UI estimates. But administrators said the project's goal is to move the campus toward renewable energy goals outlined in a 2010 Climate Action Plan.

The campus Student Sustainability Committee has tentatively agreed to cover just over $1 million of that $5.3 million campus subsidy with proceeds from a student sustainability fee.

But students and others who back the solar farm project nonetheless say they wish the campus had considered other sites more thoroughly before developing an open green space.

The proposed solar farm would be located close to the Canadian National Railroad Tracks that parallel Neil Street, west of a pond on the site. The area east of the pond, closer to First and Windsor, would remain open space, according to the site plan.

One of the conditions of the student support is that the UI avoid using green spaces for future solar projects, looking instead to existing structures, parking lots or other "brown fields," said UI junior Marika Nell, chair of the sustainability committee.

Brian Deal, UI professor of urban and regional planning, said other universities have installed raised solar panels in parking lots, where they function as a kind of carport. The universities can charge more for those parking spaces, and the lots do double-duty as energy-producers — without taking up undeveloped space, he said.

"This was a good opportunity to show we can do that kind of thing," Deal said.

Morgan Johnston, sustainability coordinator for Facilities and Services, said other sites were considered for the solar farm but they weren't big enough or would have taken longer to approve — endangering the campus' ability to meet its 2015 deadline for producing 5 percent of its energy from renewable sources.

A number of people have suggested Lot E-14 west of the Assembly Hall as a possibility, but there were several problems with that lot, Johnston said.

For one, the Assembly Hall is considered a historic site and substantial changes to its "view shed" would have to be reviewed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which would have delayed the project, she said.

Parking lots also can't be leased to a private vendor, and building elevated solar panels would be more expensive, Johnston said.

At 13 acres, the E-14 lot also wasn't big enough, she said. The UI needed 30 acres for a solar farm large enough to meet the 2015 goals.

Campus leaders directed planners to the UI's south farms, and the College of ACES suggested the 30-acre plot at First and Windsor as it was "not as productive for their use," Johnston said. The land has been used for research by the Department of Crop Sciences and Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. Campus planners approved the site.

"We had to make a priority decision," Johnston, but added, "The university is looking at how we can stop our sprawl."

She said Facilities and Services will continue to look at alternative sites for future solar projects.

For instance, the campus is considering solar panels for the top of the north campus parking deck at University and Goodwin avenues, to help the new Electrical and Computer Engineering Building reach its "net zero" energy use target.

Nell and Deal agreed that re-examining other sites now would set the project back another year and endanger the UI's 2015 energy goals.

"It's a good project, and it's important that we do it," Deal said. "Long term, we need to show Illinois farmers, too, that they can be part of this solution and build energy farms. Our rural landscapes could be net energy providers."

The solar farm project didn't require county zoning approval because it's state-owned land, said John Hall, Champaign County planning and zoning director. The site is located in an unincorporated area between Champaign and Savoy. Hall, who learned of the project Friday, didn't see a general problem with that site but noted it is close to other municipalities that could have objections.

UI officials said they briefed the mayors of Champaign, Urbana and Savoy on the project.

"I don't think we have any concerns," said Craig Rost, Champaign's deputy city manager for economic development. "It is outside the city's jurisdiction directly, and we are supportive of sustainability."

Savoy Village Manager Richard Helton said he initially heard about the project two years ago but thought it had been sidelined because of funding problems and other concerns. He said he needed to learn more about it but suggested the solar panels would be better suited farther from potential development areas.

"I know to some people these things are beautiful, but to other people they're not," Helton said. "From our perspective, we don't think that's an appropriate area to put that sort of project."

Developer Peter Fox, who is planning a retail-residential development at the northeast corner of First and Windsor, said he doesn't think the solar farm will have an impact on that project. But he added, "I'm not quite sure why you wouldn't put it on buildings throughout campus."

The student committee members had other concerns, too, including the fate of an old barn on the site and the solar farm's distance from central campus, Nell said. Given that student fees are supporting the project, they want to ensure it will help educate students about renewable energy, she said. One stipulation of the student support is that a "strong educational component" is added to the project.

The barn, which is slated to be demolished before next March to clear the way for the solar project, isn't considered historically significant by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, Johnston said.

"It can't stay where it is. If it did, we'd have to change the outline of the site, which would negate the selection process" for the project, she said.

But UI officials are talking with students about ways to salvage the barn's materials in other ways, she said.

Johnston and Facilities and Services spokesman Andy Blacker said the campus already struggles to find enough money to preserve truly historic buildings on the south campus, such as Mumford House and the round barns.

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Boss Hog wrote on November 05, 2012 at 9:11 am

I think it's assinine to take farmland out of production to build a solar farm. And on top of it, they're charging the students for it.  This has got to be the most ridiculous thing I've heard about in a long time.

ronaldo wrote on November 05, 2012 at 11:11 am

This is ludicrous for more reasons than just the overtaking of valuable farmland to install what will likely be the biggest eyesore in town.

First, when a governing body gives you an estimate - "The UI would pay about $5.3 million more for the energy over the first 10 years than it would cost to produce it from conventional sources, according to UI estimates." - take it with a grain of salt. History tells us that the numbers presented to "sell" a government project, the original estimate, are almost always significantly less than what the final costs are.  If you want to win an easy bet with your friends, wager them that the actual overages for the purchases of electricity will be in the $7-$10 million dollar range. The most recent underestimated boondoggle involves the city of Chicago and their selling of their parking meter rights. Don't believe me? Ask any resident of Chicago.

Secondly, “After 10 years the UI would own the solar farm and have access to the energy produced at little or no cost, advocates say.”  So let me get this straight, the University will be purchasing electricity from the solar farm developer for a period of ten years (at a loss of at least $5.3 MILLION), and when the ten years are up the University takes ownership of the solar farm?  Who approved this sweetheart deal for the developer?  Keeping in mind that with the pace that alternative energy technologies are being developed, and equally as quickly as current technologies are becoming outdated at best and obsolete at worst, what good of an asset is a ten-year old (outdated) solar system going to be to the University?  Would you lease a computer or cell phone for ten years at an outrageously inflated cost only to take ownership of that piece of outdated technology in ten years?  And what about the increased maintenance costs associated with ten-year-old equipment? Count on the University to replace the 30 acres worth of aging solar panels shortly after taking ownership to the tune of untold millions.  How about a deal allowing the University to take immediate ownership of the solar farm, and then after ten years relinquish ownership to the developer and commence purchasing electricity at that point?  The developer will laugh all the way to their next contract.

The University seems to be so focused on meeting this arbitrary and unenforceable goal that they’ll make whatever decision necessary to attain it.  After all, it’s always easy to spend other people’s money, right?