Updated: Solar farm construction to start in spring at UI

Updated: Solar farm construction to start in spring at UI

CHAMPAIGN — This time next year, students at the University of Illinois could be studying under lights powered by energy from the sun — at least in part.

A long-awaited "solar farm" considered a key step in the UI's transition to renewable energy is moving into the design phase, with construction expected to start in the spring.

The UI recently finalized contract terms with Phoenix Solar of Ramon, Calif., the company chosen to build the 20.8-acre installation south of Windsor Road and west of First Street. The state had approved the company after a lengthy review process and recently signed off on the limited liability corporation Phoenix Solar created to run installation at the UI.

"We are very pleased to see this long-awaited agreement completed and signed, so the installation process can begin," said Morgan Johnston, associate director of sustainability at UI Facilities and Services, who is overseeing the project.

"This is a major change for our campus," Johnston said.

The solar farm is a public-private partnership between the UI and Phoenix Solar, which will design, build and operate the farm for the first 10 years and then turn it over to the UI.

As proposed, 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 about $15.5 million over 10 years.

That's about $5.3 million more than it would cost to obtain the same energy from conventional sources, but the idea is to move the campus toward renewable energy. After 10 years, the university would own and operate the farm at little or no cost, other than an annual warranty fee that is part of the $15.5 million, according to the UI.

Construction of the 20-acre solar power installation originally was scheduled to start in the summer of 2013. But a state procurement officer questioned the financial wherewithal of Phoenix Solar and raised technical questions about the bidding process, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act last year.

The field of solar panels will supply about 2 percent of the UI's electricity demand, helping the campus meet its renewable energy commitments in its 2010 Illinois Climate Action Plan, or ICAP.

The campus has made progress toward those goals with energy conservation efforts and smaller-scale renewable energy projects, such as the rooftop solar installation on the Business Instructional Facility, a solar-thermal unit that heats water for pools at the Activities and Recreation Center, and similar projects at the Building Research Council and Allerton Park.

But those projects are small — 14 or 33 kilowatts — whereas the solar farm will produce 5.87 megawatts, she said.

"It's a significant leap forward in renewable energy generation for our campus," Johnston said.

The installation will be one of the largest solar photo-voltaic projects on any college campus in the country, she said.

The next step will be to develop detailed engineering and design plans. Once those are approved, the 6- to 12-foot panels and frames will be ordered and construction can begin later in the spring, she said.

"It should be up and running by the end of this calendar year," she said.

The site will be protected by a security fence but it will be visible from Windsor Road, she said. The solar farm will be between the pond on the site and the Canadian National railroad tracks. The pond will remain accessible to the public, and green space near the corner of First and Windsor will not be affected, Johnston said.

The project was not without controversy. Students who helped pay for it complained about the location, far from the center of campus. They had hoped it could be part of a sustainable energy educational program. Others said they wished the campus had considered campus parking lots or other "brown field" sites, rather than open green space.

The campus Student Sustainability Committee agreed to cover just over $1 million of the $5.3 million campus subsidy with proceeds from a student sustainability fee. One of the conditions is that the UI avoid using green spaces for future solar projects, looking instead to existing structures, parking lots or other brown fields.

Johnston said the university is working with Phoenix Solar to provide some kind of student engagement in the project, and it will also have a website to share information.

“This project demonstrates the campus commitment to sustainability, and it is my hope that this is the first of many projects that will help the university achieve the smallest possible carbon footprint,” said Professor Evan DeLucia, director of the UI’s Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment.

Skeptics have questioned whether central Illinois has enough sunshine to make the project work, but Johnston said other solar projects on campus and across the region have proven to provide a consistent amount of solar energy.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the location of the solar farm west of  First Street.

By the numbers

Key statistics about the University of Illinois' solar farm, to be built later this year at First Street and Windsor Road:

2: Percentage of campus electricity it will provide

20.8: Acres it will cover

7,860,000: Kilowatt hours to be produced during its first year of operation

$15,500,000: Estimated amount UI will pay Phoenix Solar South Farm LLC for that energy over the 10-year power-purchase agreement

2012: Year it was first proposed

2025: Year UI will own facility outright

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BruckJr wrote on January 20, 2015 at 8:01 pm

$5.3 million more than conventional sources?  Guess the university must be plush with money.

charlesf wrote on January 20, 2015 at 11:01 pm


sanjuan wrote on January 21, 2015 at 10:01 am

That's west of First Street not east.   It's east of the CN tracks.


Julie Wurth wrote on January 21, 2015 at 11:01 am
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Thanks, that's been corrected.