UI Sustainability Council exploring expansion of solar farm

UI Sustainability Council exploring expansion of solar farm

CHAMPAIGN — The campus is considering an expansion of the 2-year-old solar array on the University of Illinois South Farms, which has been idle since late October but is set to resume operations by the end of the year.

The campuswide Sustainability Council has discussed a possible expansion of the 21-acre solar farm to help meet renewable-energy goals outlined in the Illinois Climate Action Plan, known as iCAP. Under the plan, the campus is to be "carbon neutral" by 2050, emitting no net carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Campus officials discussed the prospect of a solar-farm expansion at a senate meeting earlier this month.

But UI Professor Evan DeLucia, a member of the campus Sustainability Council, said that's just one idea under consideration, and talks are in the "very early days."

"We are exploring options for significantly increasing our solar energy on campus," said DeLucia, professor of biology and director of the Institute for Sustainability, Energy and Environment. "I think everything's on the table right now."

Located just south of Windsor Road, between Neil and First streets, the solar array hasn't produced any electricity for nearly two months.

It's been offline since Oct. 29, when something went wrong with the on-site electrical system that supplies the critical solar inverters — the devices that convert the direct current from a photovoltaic solar panel into an alternating current that can be fed into a commercial electrical grid or used by a local electrical network.

The failed part was a connector at the transformer, according to Allen Wilson, project manager for Rockwell Financial Group, a partner on the project.

In an email statement, Wilson said repairs have been delayed because contractors and parts have been needed for electrical work in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean following recent hurricanes.

Key components have now been acquired, he said, and a subcontractor expects to complete repairs by the last week of December. The system will return to full operation at that point, he said.

"We've taken the time to make sure that the system is operating and bring it up to a redesign to improve the situation," he said.

Under the UI's 10-year agreement with Phoenix Solar LLC, which built and operates the solar farm and sells energy to the university, the company is responsible for all maintenance expenses.

The university won't pay any of the repair costs and isn't paying anything to Phoenix Solar while the farm is offline, according to Wilson and campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

The university signed a 10-year power purchase agreement with Phoenix Solar in 2015 to buy electricity produced by the solar farm and deliver it directly to the campus grid. The UI will take over the installation after 10 years.

"Until recently, it'd been working brilliantly," DeLucia said.

The UI paid almost $1.4 million to Phoenix Solar in 2016, when the solar farm produced almost 7,300 megawatt hours of electricity — slightly less than the 7,800 target but still providing almost 2 percent of campus energy needs. It was on track to meet or exceed that level this year until the shutdown.

By comparison, two rooftop solar installations on the Business Instructional Facility and Wassaja Hall produce about 44 megawatt hours each, and a smaller one at the Building Research Council produces about 20, Kaler said.

Under iCAP, the campus goal is to eventually produce 25,000 megawatt hours of solar power. "We are in the process of evaluating how to meet our goal," Kaler said.

Options include an expanded solar farm, a second installation on the south farms, or more rooftop arrays — or some combination of those, Kaler and DeLucia said. The Sustainability Council is looking at pricing and how much each would produce.

A second solar farm would "almost certainly be fairly close to campus, because of the expense of running the transmission lines," DeLucia said, though he declined to identify potential sites.

Some critics of the current solar farm had urged the campus to use "brown" sites, such as parking lots, rather than farmland. That's a good option, as is rooftop solar, but they're both more expensive, DeLucia and Kaler said.

Solar panels are scheduled to be installed on the roof of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building in 2018, and the campus is considering another solar installation on the roof of the north campus parking garage, Kaler said.