Cornell Solar Power Project Gets Boost from State

Cornell is harnessing the power of the sun, and state funding, for a proposed solar facility on Snyder Road in the Town of Lansing...

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By D.W. Nutt via The Ithaca Journal, 7/13/13

An artistic rendering on how the solar panel array might look (Distributed Sun)
An artistic rendering on how the solar panel array might look (Distributed Sun)

Cornell University is harnessing the power of the sun, and state funding, for a proposed solar facility on Snyder Road in the Town of Lansing.

Aided by the New York State Electric Research and Development Agency, the university would partner with grant awardee Distributed Sun LLC to install 6,766 solar photovoltaic panels on a 10-acre site owned by Cornell, adjacent to the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport.

The solar panel array would be Cornell’s first large-scale solar project and is expected to produce about 2.5 million kilowatt-hours annually, or about 1 percent of Cornell’s total electricity use. That’s enough electricity to power about 320 homes for a year.

Distributed Sun — a Washington, D.C., company that builds solar-power generation systems nationwide — will construct and operate the facility with Cornell buying the electricity as part of a power purchase agreement. The energy will be used for campus buildings that have yet to be determined, according to Sarah Zemanick, a sustainability management specialist in Cornell’s Campus Sustainability Office who led the project team.

“Solar has been something that Cornell has been thinking about for a long time,” said Zemanick. “It was looked at when the Climate Action Plan was put out publicly in 2009. At that time it wasn’t economically feasible to do. Folks in energy and sustainability have been watching for opportunities to do solar.”

Cornell’s Climate Action Plan provides a road map for its Ithaca campus to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero by the year 2050 and achieve carbon neutrality. Since then it has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 32 percent.

Lansing approval needed
Zemanick said the time line for the solar array is quite tight as NYSERDA requires the projects to be operational within eight months of the approval date. First, however, the Town of Lansing needs to approve the plan and the developer agreement needs to be finalized. Zemanick is targeting the town’s Aug. 12 meeting for approval.

“Distributed Sun would like to start construction this fall, and they would really like to have it wrapped up by the end of the calendar year, but we have until the start of March according to the NYSERDA rules,” she said. “I think the actual active construction period won’t be much more than a month. There’s not really a lot to put together.”

Distributed Sun is making 10 solar panels on the site, which is located just west of Cornell's former radiation disposal site, available specifically for student and scientist research. Researchers will also have access to the Web-based dashboard of the solar array’s state-of-the-art monitoring software.

“We’re happy to do that,” said Distributed Sun co-chairman Jeff Weiss, a Cornell alum whose daughter and son are students at the university. “We’re really looking forward to seeing what information they create and what breakthroughs they might come up with, and working with them to make that easier and make that available.”

“It should be a great applied laboratory right in Ithaca, New York,” he said.

$4 million price tag
A total of $54 million has been awarded for 79 large-scale solar energy projects across the state under Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s NY-Sun initiative. The Cornell facility will cost $4 million, a third of which will be covered by the NYSERDA grant, with Distributed Sun securing the rest of the financing.

“Pending local approvals, this represents a significant step to advance Cornell’s renewable energy portfolio,” said Kyu Whang, Cornell vice president for facilities, in a statement. “A Lansing solar facility would align with the carbon reduction goals of Cornell, Tompkins County and New York State.”

The Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council and the Tompkins County Legislature recently endorsed the 22-point “Cleaner Greener Southern Tier” plan, which establishes goals for reducing carbon emissions by 32 percent over 20 years and to obtain 2 percent of the region’s electricity from solar power by 2032.

Zemanick is optimistic that the solar array could lead to greater solar projects on and around campus.

“We are in the process of doing sort of a comprehensive look at our rooftops as well as ground mount sites and potentially even parking lots,” she said. “Hopefully there will be more funding opportunities like this.”

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.