Cornell Flips the Switch at Snyder Road Solar Farm

Cornell’s Snyder Road Solar Farm — the University’s first large-scale solar energy project — went live Friday...

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By Zoe Fergusun, via the Cornell Daily Sun, 09/23/2014

Cornell’s Snyder Road Solar Farm — the University’s first large-scale solar energy project — went live Friday, a move officials say is “key” in making Cornell a leader in sustainable energy.

The Snyder Road Solar Farm, located near the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, consists of a two-megawatt array of solar panels sprawled across 11 acres of Cornell property in the town of Lansing, according to Prof. Tobias Hanrath, chemical and biomolecular engineering, who is also a faculty fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

Cornell’s new solar farm will reduce carbon emissions by 0.5 percent, according to Sarah Zemanick of the Campus Sustainability Office. (Ryan Landvater / Sun Senior Photographer)
Cornell’s new solar farm will reduce carbon emissions by 0.5 percent, according to Sarah Zemanick of the Campus Sustainability Office. (Ryan Landvater / Sun Senior Photographer)

According to Sarah Zemanick, sustainability management specialist at the Campus Sustainability Office, the solar farm will produce about one percent of Cornell’s electricity and reduce university carbon emissions by 0.5 percent.

“While the one percent of electricity and 0.5 percent of emissions doesn’t sound like a lot, I think it’s important,” Zemanick said. “When you consider that Cornell uses about one-one thousandth of all the electricity in New York State, it becomes more significant. If you put that in the context of overall electricity use in New York State and the fact that it’s the equivalent electricity of about 320 homes, that puts it in perspective.”

The solar farm will produce the maximum amount of electricity allowed by the Public Service Commission, according to Zemanick. There are restrictions regarding how large one can build a project — like the Snyder Road Solar Farm — that uses remote net metering.

Remote net metering is a monitoring system — measuring the inputs and outputs of a solar energy source — that enabled Cornell to build the solar farm several miles off campus, Zemanick said.

One restriction on building a solar farm with remote net metering, Zemanick said, is the limit on how much energy one location is allowed to produce. An individual project is limited to two megawatts in size.

“We built the solar farm as big as we could,” she said.

A second major restriction on the solar farm is a strict limitation on how many renewable energy projects can be associated with one account. Each account — including Cornell — is only allowed to collect credit from one renewable energy project at a time, according to the Public Service Commission.

“Our campus has a 35-megawatt load,” Zemanick said. “We can’t build 16 or 17 solar farms and credit them all back to the main campus. You’re limited to only one.”

Funding for the solar farm was provided in part by a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

“Finding out about the … funding was the key to being able to move forward,” Zemanick said. “The funding opportunity is what has made the project economically viable.”

The solar farm is Cornell’s first megawatt-scale renewable electricity generation project since 1904, when the current hydroelectric plant at Fall Creek Gorge went online, Zemanick said. Todd Cowen, faculty director for energy at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, said he was “thrilled” about the new solar farm.

“I am thrilled to see this new solar farm coming online,” Cowen said.

Cowen said that the Climate Action Plan Acceleration Working Group, of which he is a member, has presented President Skorton with a report of six milestones that Cornell should strive towards in becoming a carbon-neutral campus by 2035. The construction of the solar farm, he said, is a significant step in achieving that goal.

“The Snyder Road Solar Farm represents a key piece of one of these milestones, that Cornell should secure renewable energy supplies,” Cowen said. “[It] represents one of the key reasons Cornell can and will succeed at being climate neutral by 2035 — we have an incredible facilities group that is at the forefront on sustainability.”

Hanrath added the solar farm has “great educational value” in the real-world example it will set for engineering students.

“Aside from setting a clear message about Cornell’s commitment to renewable energy, the solar farm also has great educational value,” Hanrath said. “I’ve taught a course on solar energy for several years. Now, instead of just showing pictures of solar cell farms, we can actually take the class out to the farm and see the solar cells in action.”

KyuJung Whang, vice president for facilities services, said the completion of the solar farm is “a significant accomplishment.”

“This is the first solar farm that we have built, and so I think it’s a significant accomplishment to have completed this project,” Whang said. “It’s a first step towards making Cornell more sustainable, with solar and other renewable sources of energy.”

Officials said they hoped the solar farm would set a precedent for future Cornell sustainability projects.

“The Snyder Road Solar Farm suggests to me that we have an excellent chance of several more renewable projects joining our energy portfolio in the coming year,” Cowen said.

Zemanick added the University is “really excited” to see what it can accomplish through the farm.

“Hopefully this will be the first of many initiatives coming in the near future to reach our carbon neutrality goal,” he said.

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