UI issues request for bids for Solar Farm 2.0 project

UI issues request for bids for Solar Farm 2.0 project

SAVOY — By next spring, a sea of blue solar panels could occupy a 54-acre farm field at the northwest corner of First Street and Curtis Road.

The University of Illinois has issued a request for proposals for a second large solar array to help meet its clean-energy targets.

UI Facilities and Services issued the RFP for the Solar Farm 2.0 project on Monday, seeking a 10- or 20-year power-purchase agreement with a private developer who would design, build and operate the facility and sell the energy to the campus at a fixed rate each year.

The UI's first solar farm, a smaller array that went online in 2015 along Windsor Road, was built under a similar 10-year agreement with Phoenix Solar Inc. The UI will buy that facility from the company at the end of the agreement.

The public-private partnership allows the university to effectively finance the cost of the facility over 10 years, instead of paying for it up front, according to UI officials.

Facilities and Services Director Mohamed Attalla said the campus would prefer a 20-year agreement this time, to spread the cost over a longer period.

"That would be more efficient in terms of dollars for the university, and the buyout would be less," he said Wednesday.

As with the first solar farm, the new agreement will be made through Prairieland Energy Inc., a corporation wholly owned by the UI Board of Trustees that was created to buy energy efficiently.

Proposals are due April 3, with an award to be made in August and construction expected to begin in early October after the fall harvest, Attalla said. He is hoping it can be operational by June 2020.

After a vendor is selected, the university will enter into negotiations with the company for a partnership agreement. The vendor will have to provide a breakdown of the anticipated construction costs, operating costs and profits, Attalla said.

A unique feature of Solar Farm 2.0: It will be designed to create a "pollinator habitat," with plants friendly to bees and other pollinators interspersed among the solar panels.

After some initial concerns, the village of Savoy has signed off on the project. Officials had worried about noise from the facility and its proximity to housing developments across the street.

Attalla said UI representatives met with village officials and incorporated their suggestions. Among them:

— A buffer of trees and pollinator plants along the edge of the solar array was expanded, and village officials will help choose the plants.

— To ease traffic concerns, the construction entrance to the solar farm will be along First Street, rather than Curtis.

— To alleviate noise, sound-absorbing panels and other features will be installed around the inverters, or compressors, that convert the DC power into AC.

— The solar panels chosen will also be "aesthetically pleasing." The UI will install blue panels, rather than black, which from a distance "look like a wavy lake," Attalla said.

The installation also will have some research benefits to the campus as a "live lab," he said. Facilities and Services will collaborate with UI researchers to study the performance of the solar array. They will collect data on the impact of snow, dust, temperature, amount of sunshine and the tilt of the panels, he said.

"The whole industry of photovoltaics and solar panels is still under research, to be able to produce it at lower cost and to be more efficient in producing more power per square foot," he said.

The project will help the campus meet several clean energy targets in its Illinois Climate Action Plan, known as iCap, Attalla said.

One of the UI's goals under iCap is to generate 25,000 megawatt hours of solar energy each year by 2025, said Morgan White, director of sustainability for Facilities and Services. The first solar farm generates about 7,000 megawatt hours a year, and Solar Farm 2.0 would add at least 18,000 megawatt hours, Attalla said.

The combined production will make the UI the third largest user of on-site renewable energy among U.S. colleges and universities, he said.

The project will also help the campus move toward a larger goal: to boost its use of clean, low-carbon energy to 140,000 megawatt hours a year by 2025, White said.

To meet that target, the campus has pilot projects underway to install geothermal energy in some buildings and is exploring power purchase agreements to buy renewable energy from off campus — wind, solar geothermal, biomass or even nuclear, Attalla and White said.

The iCap's ultimate goal is for the campus to be "carbon neutral" by 2050.

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