The university has a history of firsts to prove it — Cornell was the first Ivy League school to admit women and one of the first university campuses to use electricity to light its grounds using hydro power. So with this spirit of innovation and social responsibility in its DNA, it’s no surprise that when it comes to one of humanity’s greatest challenges-sustainability-Cornell is on the forefront of the movement.
Cornell was the first university to commit to the Kyoto Protocol for carbon reduction back in 2001. It has initiated a number of broad actions to green the campus that have helped reduce gross emissions by 30 percent (and by nearly 50 percent since 1990), and have established Cornell as a national leader among universities that have committed to carbon neutrality.
Carbon Neutrality Challenge
Building on its environmentally conscious history, Cornell has an ambitious mission to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035. This means eliminating campus greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil-fuel carbon energy with clean, renewable energy. To help achieve this, the University implemented its award-winning Cornell Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2009. The plan was developed by Cornell faculty, students, and staff with funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).
With such an aggressive plan, Cornell is constantly looking for new solutions to expand its renewable energy portfolio. Solar power is one of the plan’s neutrality goals; but in the past it has been too expensive to make good economic sense.
However, with the price of solar panels dropping and solar companies becoming faster and more efficient, the cost of solar array installations has fallen 70 percent in the last few years. This, coupled with New York State offering subsidies and tax incentives for solar projects and new and creative financing programs becoming available, made Cornell’s first large-scale solar project an affordable and viable option in 2014.
Solar Farm Benefits
The Cornell Snyder Road Solar Farm is Cornell’s first large-scale solar project. It represents a significant step to advance Cornell’s clean energy portfolio and aligns with the carbon reduction goals of Cornell, Tompkins County, and the state of New York. Here is a recap of the project stats: Includes 2 MW system with 6,778 solar panels across 11 acres of land, Generates 2.5M kWh per year on average, accounts for 1% of Cornell’s energy use — equivalent to the electricity used in 320 homes, reduces carbon pollution by 650 tons per year, and provides opportunity for research and teaching.
Creative Financing Increases Affordability and Mitigates Risk
There are two primary financing solutions that allow facilities to receive the benefits of adopting a solar power system without having to assume the risks associated with the design, installation, financing, and management:
Power Purchase Agreements
The Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) is a “third-party” ownership financing model that requires a separate system owner to procure, install, and operate the solar PV system on a facility owner’s property. The facility owner enters into a long-term contract to purchase 100 percent of the electricity generated by the system from the system owner.
Benefits of a PPA include:
- Provides no/low costs for the life of the project
- Eliminates asset management responsibilities
- Reduces energy and operational costs once the system is commissioned
- Provides protection from utility price volatility .
- Demonstrates visible environmental/ sustainability commitment
Solar Lease Agreements
Some utilities and other solar programs do not allow facility owners to directly benefit from a solar PPA, as the electricity must be sold to the local utility. These clients can use their rooftops, parking lots, and open land to host solar power assets. By leasing areas of their property, the facility owner can still take advantage of the benefits of solar without investing any money. The facility owner receives a lease payment that will be paid on a scheduled basis, generating revenue from undervalued areas of their property.
Benefits of Solar Lease Agreements include:
- Creates a new income stream
- Enhances corporate social responsibility platform
- Positions facility as an environmental leader
Cornell chose to use a long-term PPA to structure the project. ABM worked with joint venture partner Building Energy, who is a global renewable energy utility company, and solar financier Distributed Sun to develop a PPA project on Cornell’s land. The 2MW project was awarded an incentive by NYSERDA and now provides solar electricity to Cornell under a PPA at electricity rates that are competitive with local utility rates.
Solar Farm Solution in Action
The Cornell Snyder Road Solar Farm-Cornell’s first large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) energy endeavor-was completed in September of 2014. It consists of a 2MW array on 11 acres of Cornell property in the Town of Lansing, NY, that is a few miles from the university.
Through 6,778 solar PV panels, the system will generate nearly 2.5 million kilowatt hours (kWh) per year on average or one percent of Cornell’s energy use. And, the solar array is also expected to reduce the university’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by 650 metric tons per year.
In keeping with Cornell’s spirit of learning and research, 10 of the solar panels and an inverter have been designated for academic use. The panels are available for Cornell sponsored research and teaching projects as well as for collaborative projects with local community K-12 schools, colleges, and their students. The public is also able to track the solar data through a University-sponsored Web-based dashboard.
Distributed Sun and Building Energy implemented the project and will own and operate the solar farm for the duration of the PPA. ABM provided bankable solar engineering, procurement, and contracting services of the panel array, as well as design and value engineering to reduce costs and increase power production. ABM will also provide ongoing operations and maintenance for the now completed plant.
Benefits Propel Cornell towards Green Goals
The Cornell Snyder Road Solar Farm is a major accomplishment for Cornell’s clean energy portfolio, and the project marks a significant step towards the university’s aggressive 2035 carbon neutrality goal. The solar system is providing Cornell University with fixed, low-cost energy rates over the life of the 30-year PPA, allowing the school to save money as utility costs are expected to continue to rise in the coming years.
Also because of the PPA, Cornell is receiving the financial and environmental benefits of adopting a solar photovoltaic energy, without having to assume the risks associated with the design, installation, financing and management of the system.
Because of the success of the Cornell Snyder Road Solar Farm, Cornell is identifying and planning other solar installations. Through these projects, Cornell is hoping that one day solar power will provide up to six percent of the campus’ electricity and achieve even more greenhouse gas reductions.