Cornell Solar Farm to Produce Power in September

Cornell's solar farm will pump approximately 2 megawatts, accounting for 1 percent of the Cornell's energy use...

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Cornell Solar farm on Snyder Road (Photo by Ole Gustafon)

By D.W. Nutt, via the Ithaca Journal, 07/30/2014

LANSING – Cornell University's solar farm on Snyder Road has sprouted 6,778 panels and is scheduled to start pumping power come September.

Located on 11 acres adjacent to Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, the solar farm will annually produce 2.5 million kilowatt-hours, enough to power 320 homes a year. The solar farm is Cornell's first large-scale renewable energy generation project since the hydroelectric plant was constructed in 1904, according to Sustainability Management Specialist Sarah Zemanick.

"I feel like we're shortchanging Lake Source Cooling, but that's really more energy conservation, if you think about it. It's not electricity," she said.

The project was announced in July 2013 and approved by the Town of Lansing later that fall. In April of this year,when the snow had melted and the mud was at its peak,construction commenced. Trenches were dug so the array could be wired in series, and then the racking, panels and inverters were installed.

The farm will annually produce 2.5 million kilowatt-hours, enough to power 320 homes a year

The only work that remains is for NYSEG to tie the project into the main power grid and survey the site to make sure it's operating at full capacity. Then the power will start to flow on Sept. 8, said Josh Swafford, construction superintendent with AMB Government Services.

So far the biggest challenge arrived during the environmental review, when project leaders discovered a wetlands located in the middle of the proposed site.

"Although there are processes and permits in place through the Army Corps and the state, we decided that the best strategy was to preserve the wetland and go around it," Zemanick said.

That decision has resulted in a horseshoe-shaped array of ground-mounted panels on a slightly reduced footprint.

With thousands of sleek black panels situated next to an airport, Zemanick said there have been many questions from the public about possible glare issues.

"The FAA has a pretty hefty glare analysis process that you have to go through and, you know, produce a 90-page tome," Zemanick said. "We want to absorb all the light, not reflect it. So not only are the panels designed to absorb the visible spectrum but they're treated with an anti-glare coating."

Zemanick noted that the FAA glare analysis manual ranks possible glare sources — from snowy fields to bare soil to concrete — on a scale of zero to 100.

"A solar farm scores a two, right down there with water," she said. "A grassy field is in the mid-40s."

The solar farm will supply approximately 2 megawatts, accounting for 1 percent of the Cornell's energy use, and for at least the first year the electricity will be metered to the university's Lake Source Cooling facility.

"That will be half to three-quarters of the electric use of the facility," Zemanick said. "So we will have almost emissions-free net zero cooling for campus."

The solar farm cost roughly $4 million, a third of which was provided by a grant from the New York State Electric Research and Development Agency. The remainder came from financing secured by Distributed Sun LLC, a Washington, D.C., company that builds solar-power generation systems nationwide. Distributed Sun constructed the facility and will continue to operate and own it, with Cornell buying the electricity as part of a power purchase agreement.

The solar farm is a piece of the university's Climate Action Plan, which seeks to make Cornell carbon neutral by 2050, although a more aggressive plan has emerged that may move that goal up to 2035. But Cornell's solar farm is not the only one cropping up in the county. Tompkins Cortland Community College has proposed its own project of 8,676 panels in Dryden, and Lansing Central School District is also looking into a solar array that could provide the district with up to 95 percent of its electricity.

Zemanick said the sudden burst of interest in solar can at least partly be attributed to a NYS Public Service Commission declaratory ruling in May 2013 that stemmed from a petition Cornell filed, in which the university sought clarification on "remote net metering" rules. The commission's ruling ultimately lifted restrictions on how electricity for such projects is rated, the locations that can be used, and the minimum electrical load required.

"That has really opened the door for all these other projects, being able to ask NYSEG to put in a new meter to serve just the solar array," Zemanick said. "Before, they were restricting us to an existing meter that had to be a minimum load, which changes the economics of the project."

As part of its agreement with Distributed Sun, a separate rack of 10 panels has been made available for educational outreach efforts. Whether it's Cornell engineering students who are researching renewable energy or local K-12 classes on a field trip, visitors can change the angle of the array and monitor the results in an online data acquisition system.

"They'll have the freedom to do pretty much whatever kind of research they can dream up," Zemanick said. "The sky's the limit."

The public will also be able to track the solar data, along with data from other Cornell facilities, through the university's online building dashboard at buildingdashboard.net/cornell/#/cornell.

Dryden Middle School science teacher Sten Andersonsaid he is always on the lookout for projects that can provide his students with an authentic hand's-on experience, particularly anything with an alternative energy slant. Anderson said having a solar farm such as Cornell's nearby could be a great resource for educators.

"It's definitely something I would consider for a field trip," he said. "When students see something real and they get out into the field I think they truly do learn more than they do in the classroom. Because it's new, it's different from them, and it really sends home the message that it's real world content. It's not just something they're hearing about from a teacher in a room."

Solar farm by the numbers

11 acres adjacent to Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport

2.5M kilowatt-hours annually produced from solar farm

6,778 solar panels

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