Massive array shines light on solar power at RIT

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RIT’s new six-and-a-half-acre solar array farm is located south of campus off Bailey Road.

Amid the relentless onslaught of snow and ice that came during a seemingly endless winter, six-and-a-half acres of a farm field south of the RIT campus experienced a transformation.

From December through March, crews worked to install a massive 2-megawatt (MW) solar energy farm, consisting of 6,138 photovoltaic (PV) panels used to generate electricity from the sun. Construction took place on a brisk schedule, during sometimes arctic conditions.

The size of the array, scheduled to be operational in April, places it among the largest of any college in New York state. Its output—generating enough electricity to power the equivalent of more than 200 homes a year—will be tied directly into RIT’s central substation for distribution across circuits throughout the 1,300-acre university campus.

“Our campus keeps growing, and that places additional burden on our central substation, which is already nearing capacity,” said Tom Garland, lead project engineer for RIT’s Facilities Management Services. “We need to develop alternative energy sources that are going to help us keep our peak power demand down and reduce the load on our transformers.”

Currently, RIT’s main campus consumption is approximately 72 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually, according to Garland. The new solar array is expected to produce, on average, 2.3 million kWh per year—or 3.2 percent of the campus’ total. All of the power will be consumed on campus and will not be put back into the grid and sold to the utility company, he added.

“This is a big step for us,” said Enid Cardinal, senior sustainability advisor to RIT President Bill Destler. “As a campus, we’re very large consumers of both electricity and natural gas—both of which have sizable carbon footprints associated with them.”

RIT is collaborating on the project with Solar Liberty out of Buffalo, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in July 2013 the award of $54 million under his NY-Sun initiative for 79 large-scale solar energy projects across the state. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) administers the program, which provides incentives for PV systems larger than 50 kilowatts.

RIT submitted an application to NYSERDA to obtain partial funding for the project, with the balance of the cost provided by Sun Edison out of California. Solar Liberty installed and is maintaining the system at no cost to RIT. In exchange, RIT has agreed to buy the solar power produced by the system at a mutually agreed upon rate for a period of 20 years as part of what is known as a power purchase agreement.

“This rate is much lower than what we are paying now for electricity, which will reduce our overall electrical costs considerably,” Garland said. “In addition, it supports President Destler’s climate commitment pledge while reducing both our load on RG&E’s grid and our related peak power demand charges.”

Destler signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment six years ago. The commitment is a pledge by academic leaders to move their campuses toward more sustainable programs and practices. As a result of this commitment, RIT has begun inventorying its greenhouse gas emissions and has set 2030 as its target for carbon neutrality.

“Ultimately we hope this is the start of other solar installation projects to come,” said Cardinal, noting that with the solar array’s installation, RIT’s “green” power increases from 15 to 18 percent.

The new array farm marks RIT’s sixth solar project on campus. The Golisano Institute for Sustainability has two arrays totaling 40.6 kW, and the University Services Center has a 12.40 kW system. Liberty Hill uses a 10.3 kW array to offset some of the presidential residence’s electrical power. In addition to a small 2 kW array in the College of Applied Science and Technology, a new 16.6 kW array under installation at the College of Health Sciences and Technology also is scheduled to become operational in April.

The massive new solar energy farm also will have educational benefits. Having access to the energy output performance data of such a large system will enable classes in engineering and sustainability to examine the business case for solar energy as well as what it means for RIT’s carbon footprint.

Solar power appears to be coming of age and is now a technology attracting the likes of Apple, Google and Walmart. Apple CEO Tim Cook earlier this year announced that the company will build a 1,300-acre, 280-megawatt solar energy farm in Monterey, Calif.

According to the Global Market Outlook to 2016 of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association, more solar panels have been installed in Europe than all the gas, coal and wind power installations combined. In the Far East, China may install 100 gigawatts of solar by 2020—more than the world has done to date.

Even the Olympics is getting into the solar game with the Solar City Tower currently under construction for the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Standing nearly 400 feet high, the structure will function as a solar power generator during the day, providing energy for the Olympic Village and other venues throughout the 16 days of competition.

Eric Hittinger, assistant professor of public policy at RIT’s College of Liberal Arts and an expert in the economic, technical and policy aspects of energy issues, said while solar is still considered an emerging technology compared to coal, nuclear and wind energy, “the cost is coming down and the performance is going up as we build more arrays and conduct additional research.”

“We’ve yet to see solar’s full promise since we are still waiting to see where it will take us, but its current trajectory is very high,” Hittinger said.

Cardinal noted the new solar energy farm is one of a growing number of university-wide initiatives that include waste reduction—namely food composting, reusable to-go containers, food recovery and efforts to make the Gene Polisseni Center a zero-waste facility along with new energy-efficient buildings that will provide energy savings for decades to come and campus lighting upgrades—that are making RIT even more sustainable.

Hittinger said these initiatives are what make RIT a microcosm of efforts on a national and global scale. “Most people agree that the real solution is sort of the ‘silver buckshot approach’ nationally and globally,” Hittinger said. “If we use solar, biofuels, wind energy, hydropower—a diversified approach—that will take us where we need to be.”

Cardinal agreed, noting that renewable energy initiatives alone “aren’t going to be enough” when it comes to reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

“We need to change our behaviors so we can meet our demand with renewable energy,” she said.

Solar—What We Know Today

  • Solar panels first appeared on the market in 1956.
  • Although not as effective as on a sunny day, solar energy can still be converted through clouds, producing 10 to 25 percent of its regular capacity.
  • The price of solar power has rapidly decreased in recent years, one of the reasons why more than 60 percent of U.S. solar panels were built and installed during the past three years.
  • Many spacecraft, such as the Mars Observer, rely on solar panels for electricity from the sun.
  • The largest solar plant in the world is located in the Mojave Desert, spanning 1,000 acres with a generation capacity of 354 megawatts.

RIT's Solar Array—By the Numbers

  • 2-megawatt solar array farm will generate enough electricity to power more than 200 homes annually.
  • 6,138 photovoltaic panels over 6.5 acres.
  • Expected to produce, on average, 2.3 million kilowatt-hours per year—or 3.2 percent of the university’s electricity total.
  • Anticipated to reduce RIT’s carbon footprint by 400 metric tons annually.

Video Extra

To watch a video about RIT’s new solar array project, go to