Listen to this article

URBANA — A second solar farm planned in Savoy will put the University of Illinois in the lead among American universities in terms of solar energy, a top campus proponent says.

The campus is moving ahead with a 55-acre solar farm along the north side of Curtis Road, between First and Neil streets in Savoy, about a mile south of the first 21-acre farm on Windsor Road.

Physics Professor Scott Willenbrock, who recently served as a provost's fellow for sustainability, briefed the Academic Senate about the project Monday, saying it will help the campus meet its goal of generating 5 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources. That target was part of the Illinois Climate Action Plan, known as iCap.

The goal is to generate 25,000 megawatt hours of energy per year through solar generation; the current solar farm, built in 2015, provides about 7,000 megawatt hours a year, or roughly 2 percent of the campus energy use.

By generating more of its own power, Willenbrock said, the campus can buy less off the grid, which reduces its carbon footprint. About 50 percent of that external power comes from coal and 25 percent from natural gas, he said.

It's also cheaper to generate electricity in-house, as 40 percent of external energy costs goes toward delivery, Willenbrock said,

"The solar farm is the most effective way to go" to meet the iCap objective, he said.

"We will be second to none as far as campus solar generation goes," tied with or slightly ahead of the University of California-Davis, he said. "No one else is close. That's quite an achievement."

The site for the new solar farm was selected in June, in conjunction with the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Willenbrock acknowledged the solar farm takes up "considerable land," which ACES officials have said is being used for crop production for the college.

He argued that solar panels are a good use of the land, as they turn sunlight directly into energy. Using it to grow corn and turn it into ethanol is less efficient, he said, noting that 30 to 40 percent of corn grown nationwide "ends up in a fuel tank as ethanol."

But two agriculture professors objected, saying that's not what's grown on those plots now.

Richard Gates. professor of agricultural and biological engineering, said he hears that argument throughout Champaign County as solar farms are proposed.

"That flat land is not corn land. It is research land. It is absolutely irreplaceable," he said. "What we are doing is categorically and slowly removing research facilities from our institutions, and I'm not sure in the rush to be green that gets recognized."

Campus officials have said they avoided active research areas — including the land between the current solar farm and the proposed site — in choosing the site for the new solar farm. The proposed area along Curtis is not used for research, they said.

"It is not fair to say we are lessening our ability to engage in research," Willenbrock said.

Animal science Professor Matthew Wheeler said some of the UI's plots grow corn and soy to feed livestock "to help feed a hungry world."

He's supportive of the solar project, but has general concerns as a farm researcher and "agriculturalist" about losing prime farmland to any kind of development.

"You put concrete on prime farmland, it's gone forever," Wheeler said later. "We're not making new arable land.

"When you put solar on farmland, you take it out of crop production. There's less food, and there's more people coming," he said. "As a farmer, as a animal scientist, I think we need to be very careful when we take prime land out of production."

The new solar farm will have plants throughout to support bees and other pollinators, UI officials say. And it will have a buffer of plants or bushes along Curtis to shield it from the road.

Willenbrock said the state has been trying to promote the use of "brownfield" sites — previously developed land — for solar installations, though it hasn't had much success yet. A small solar array is located on a brownfield site at the former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul.

Given the dire warnings in the recent U.S. climate assessment by 13 federal agencies — which warned of huge damage to the American economy if trends aren't reversed — the development of solar energy is more important than ever, Willenbrock said.

Provost Andreas Cangellaris, who recently bought an electric car, said the iCap was carefully developed to reduce the UI's carbon footprint.

"We are in a position to really move forward with totally renewable energy reliance," he said. "This is not uniformly possible today, but we have a responsibility to do that."

Others had questions Monday about the cost of the solar farm or the longevity of the technology. Willenbrock said it will have improved solar panels, "cheaper and better" than those used in the first one.

The university is putting out a request for proposals for a power-purchase agreement. As with the first one, private companies will bid to build it and then sell the energy to the university. The UI would have to pay no money up front but would pledge to buy the electricity at a fixed rate over a 10- or 20-year period, then purchase and operate the solar farm.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).