New solar farm to provide renewable energy

Courtesy of UCR Today
Courtesy of UCR Today

UCR has announced that a 10.92-acre solar farm — the largest at any UC campus — will provide three megawatts of renewable energy to the campus starting in July 2014.

“It fulfills the vision of the university,” Director of Sustainability John Cook said in an interview. “It helps us with our sustainability efforts, it gives us an opportunity for research, it doesn’t cost the students anything.”

UCR is contracting with SunPower, a Silicon Valley-based solar energy company, to construct and maintain the farm. UCR will provide $350,000 in preparation costs and, once the farm is complete, will purchase the electricity from SunPower, resulting in $4.3 million in electricity savings over the lifespan of the 20-year contract, which works out to an average of $215,000 per year.

SunPower has previous experience with the UC system, constructing a one-megawatt solar array at UC Merced.

UCR’s array will be located behind Lot 30 and next to the recently established UCR Community Garden. According to UCR Physical Plant, construction will not affect parking in Lot 30.

“All of the work as well as staging of materials, contractor vehicles and other construction equipment will be inside the actual construction area,” Director of Physical Plant Ken Mueller said.

However, the land was originally intended to be used for a parking structure and academic purposes, among other things, as stated in the Long Range Development Plan. Because of this, the contract can be terminated at any point if it is deemed to be necessary to use the land for its original purpose, although Mueller anticipates that the solar farm “will be in place for the full 20 years.”

ASUCR Vice President of Internal Affairs Johnny Ta expressed support for integrating solar energy into UCR’s energy portfolio, but was concerned with the potential for a premature contract termination. “In a case where there is an urgent need for expansion, the farm may be shut down at a loss,” Ta explained, noting that he would prefer the money be spent on building classrooms and expanding parking “before spending money on a non-permanent project.”

UCR currently obtains its electricity and water from Riverside Public Utilities (RPU), although its supply of natural gas comes from other companies. Eighteen percent of electricity generated by RPU comes from renewable sources, according to the Office of Sustainability, and RPU expects to increase that to 33 percent by 2020. In contrast, the three megawatts that the new solar array will produce will go entirely to the campus, and will account for 30 percent of the university’s base power load. During peak hours, UCR uses 18 megawatts of power.

UCR has touted its sustainability efforts in recent years, including using compostable utensils and plates in the HUB and dining halls. The Green Campus Action Plan (GCAP), a student-run, student-funded initiative, has previously installed solar panels on the roof of the HUB and created a solar-powered mobile generator.

In addition to the plans for the solar array installation, a one-megawatt array of panels is expected to be installed on the roof of UCR’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology. Mueller also says that UCR is “actively working on some specific water conservation measures at this time as well as actively utilizing LED lighting technology across the campus that is resulting in large electrical as well as maintenance savings.”

Meanwhile, GCAP plans to install solar panels in UCR’s community garden and bring in an  Internet connection to create a variety of outdoor classroom. “We would love to have professors utilize this space to teach classes and make lesson plans more interactive and tangible,” Vice President Ta said.

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