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Skidmore College Brings on the Sun with New 2-Megawatt Solar Array

Kit Kennedy

Posted December 13, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Solving Global Warming

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Skidmore College is a top-flight liberal arts college in Saratoga Springs, in New York State’s Capital District. As with any fine college, it has its traditions and special features, including its annual College Comedy Festival, its internationally acclaimed journal of fiction, poetry, essays and memoir, Salmagundi, and its newspaper, the Skidmore News.

Now, you can add to that list its newly greenlighted 2-megawatt solar array, which the college will build soon, thanks, in part, to help from New York state’s NY-Sun Initiative. (NY-Sun is Governor Cuomo’s program that is beginning to finally make the Empire State a solar contender.) “This solar energy system, which will be one of the largest in New York State, will deliver reliable power to the school, reduce harmful pollution in the community, and serve as a model for a new generation of clean energy leaders,” notes Peter Olmsted, mid-atlantic solar advocate with the advocacy group Vote Solar. Olmsted’s also a proud Skidmore alum. “I commend the Skidmore administration for seizing the opportunities offered through Governor Cuomo's NY-Sun Initiative and am eager to watch this project come to fruition.”

With the permitting approval that Skidmore got last week from the town of Greenfield, where the array will be located, the college now joins a growing number of upstate campuses—including Clarkson University, Cornell, and SUNY campuses in Buffalo and Cortland—that are embracing solar and all the benefits it has to offer: clean, renewable energy, cost-savings and educational opportunities for students. For college kids, and the rest of us, too, solar power offers a gateway to the future.

As the Skidmore News has described, the local review process for the Skidmore solar project has been a bit bumpy.  A few local residents have been afraid that the array, located among the rural area’s horse farms, will affect their quality of life. But the array will be located more than 1,000 feet from the nearest road and Skidmore has plans for fencing and trees to help protect local views. Part of the beauty of solar panels is that they are quiet and pollution-free. And for these reasons, across the United States, farms and farm country have proven to be great hosts for renewable energy projects, including wind and solar. The projects co-exist well with horses, cows, other farm animals—and with the farmers, too. They benefit from having renewable energy as a “cash crop.”  Last year, the University of Vermont installed solar panels on its Hardacre Equine Center, the stables which house UVM’s horses. This great video shows the panels going up.

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Rural areas, like those surrounding Skidmore College in upstate New York, are great hosts for solar arrays. The clean energy projects mix well with livestock and bring farmers extra income that can help them stay on family farms. (photo credit: Clean Energy Resource Teams)

Skidmore’s solar array won’t be the college’s first foray into sustainability. The college already has a longstanding and commendable commitment to protecting our environment. At present, about 40 percent of its heating and cooling needs are supplied by a system of energy-efficient ground-source heat pumps. (The systems, sometimes called geothermal heat pumps, use the relatively constant temperature just below the earth’s surface to draw heat into buildings in winter and remove warm air in summer.) When the new science building gets built in a few years, it will use that technology as well. Also in the works is an environmentally friendly micro-hydropower system that will supply 19 percent of the campus’ energy needs while protecting the local aquatic environment. And the college recently announced it will launch a new program, supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), called the NY Executive Clean Energy Leadership Institute, to teach experienced business professionals about energy efficiency, renewable energy and new business opportunities in those fields.

“Students here are very interested in sustainability and our energy sustainability is a big part of our overall sustainability plan,” explains Mike Hall, special assistant to Skidmore’s vice president for finance and administration, and Skidmore’s point person on the solar project. He notes that the new solar array will supply about 12 percent of the campus’ electricity needs. “Solar’s been on our radar for the last three or four years,” Hall says. “And with the dropping price, along with the Governor’s Sun Initiative and the tax benefits available to our for-profit partners, it’s finally possible for us to go forward.” 

Of course, it’s not just Skidmore’s students and administration who support solar. New Yorkers as a whole are overwhelmingly in favor of the clean-energy technology. Last year, 85 percent of New Yorkers polled said they’re willing to pay more for electricity to make solar power a reality in New York State, and 89 percent said they support increasing use of solar power to meet New York’s power needs.

The NY-Sun Initiative, administered by NYSERDA, is helping do just that, by cost-effectively investing in solar installations across the Empire State, at homes and businesses, manufacturing facilities and colleges. The program, begun in 2012, is already helping build the state’s nascent solar industry and driving down the cost of solar for everyone through programs that address the high, non-hardware costs that make U.S. solar prices twice as high as those in Germany. After years of languishing in the solar doldrums, New York is now 10th in the country in installed solar power, up from 13th at the beginning of the year. To keep that growth going—and the new jobs and clean-energy benefits that come with it—we need one last push from the Governor’s office, to get NY-Sun through the regulatory process that will ensure the program has the long-term support it needs.

With the Governor’s leadership, that can happen soon. Meanwhile, as the winter solstice approaches, the Skidmore solar project sheds some much-needed light. My prediction for 2014 is that the project, once built, will reflect well on Skidmore and set an example for even more colleges and universities to follow. 

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Comments

Gerald QuindryDec 15 2013 07:09 AM

Leaving all the advocacy statements and wishful thinking aside, does photo-voltaic solar power make practical sense for any upstate New York location? In addition to the high latitude, which reduces the overall solar energy available, you have the problems of frequent cloud cover, and winter snow and ice. If you look at the photo of the facility under construction, it would seem to be very difficult to access the panels to remove dirt, snow, and ice. That is necessary to keep the efficiency up. And who is going to do that after each ice or snow storm?

Solar power makes sense in some places, but upstate New York would not seem to be one of those places.

Kit KennedyDec 16 2013 09:50 AM

It turns out that solar is a great investment, even in this country’s higher latitudes. To begin with, upstate New York has a significantly better solar resource than the world leader in solar photovoltaics: overcast Germany. And, while solar’s ability to generate electricity dips some in the winter, the technology does a great service for all of us in the summer, when solar arrays produce the most power they’re capable of just when demand on the grid is highest. That means we need less power from so-called “peaker” plants, which are the dirtiest and most expensive power plants of all.

Finally, NYSERDA requires that any project it helps fund has a quality assurance plan. That involves routine maintenance, including snow and ice clearing, and 24-hour monitoring to ensure the system’s running according to plan.

Gerald QuindryDec 16 2013 12:35 PM

I sure wouldn't tout Germany as a role model. See http://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2013/10/04/should-other-nations-follow-germanys-lead-on-promoting-solar-power/

In your post, you reference a similar 0.75 GW solar facility at Buffalo. I went to the web site for that facility. They have data posted that shows their actual , "real world" performance. I calculated their load factor for the first 11 1/2 months of 2013. It is very poor -- 13.6 percent. If the Skidmore facility operates at a similar efficiency, it would produce, on average 272 megawatts from its 2,000 megawatts capacity hardware. That's a lot of money spent for not much benefit. You would produce almost double the amount of electricity if the facility was located in a different part of the U.S.

New York is NOT the right place for solar. As explained in the Forbes article, the lower load factor, and difference in capacity produced in summer versus winter, creates even bigger problems in balancing seasonal loads with alternatives like natural gas or nuclear. In the case of Germany, they switch back to coal.

Are projects like this intended to actually help reduce CO2 emissions, or just make folks feel good for doing something that is politically correct? Good intentions do not necessarily make good policy.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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