Among institutions of higher learning in America, solar is becoming trendy. In 2011 a rapid buildup of solar installations at schools ranging from small community colleges to the entire California State University system has triggered a movement among schools to keep up.

In the Princeton area, three schools — Princeton University, Mercer County Community College, and the Lawrenceville School — are about to embark on major solar projects that will be among the largest of their kind in the country.

#b#Princeton University#/b#

Princeton University has just received the go-ahead for a 5.3-megawatt solar installation on 27 acres it owns in West Windsor. The system, comprising 16,500 photovoltaic panels, is expected to be — for now — one of the largest installations at a U.S. college.

The $28 million project, to be funded and owned by Key Equipment Finance of Colorado, is expected to generate 8 million kilowatt-hours per year. That’s enough power for roughly 700 homes. For the university, it is expected to meet about 5.5 percent of the campus’ annual electrical needs. Key Equipment will lease the project to Princeton for eight years. The university expects to trim approximately 8 percent per year from its electric costs.

SunPower Corp., which has offices in Trenton, will design and build the system.

The project will be situated between the Dinky train tracks, the Delaware & Raritan Canal, Washington Road, and Route 1. According to the school, a row of trees along Washington Road will block most of the site from view. Landscaping will screen the site from the lake and the towpath.

More than just putting in solar panels, Princeton will pay for the system’s lease through incentives and by selling energy credits, hoping that its model will become one that other schools replicate.

The system will be the latest addition to Princeton’s solar energy endeavors. The university installed 5,000 panels on the roof of the building that houses the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium at Forrestal Village in 2009 and an array of 216 panels on the Frick Chemistry Laboratory last year.

#b#Mercer County Community College#/b#

By December Mercer County Community College will begin construction on a 43-acre solar farm on its West Windsor campus — the largest solar installation at a college on the continent, officials claim, and certainly bigger than the Princeton project described above.

On September 13 the Merecr County Improvement Authority, which is overseeing the project, hired SunLight General Capital of Englewood as the solar farm’s contractor. The college will enter into a 15-year agreement to buy electricity from SunLight, which will own the farm on land leased from the college. The project will cost $39 million.

The 10-megawatt system will, according to the school, provide the equivalent of a reduction of 9,010 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the emissions of 1,767 passenger vehicles, the carbon sequestered annually by 89 acres of forest preserved from deforestation, and greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity use of 1,123 homes for one year. The solar farm is expected to generate up to 90 percent of the college’s energy needs.

MCCC president Patricia C. Donohue said the solar farm will “save critical dollars and enable us to restore to our budget many cuts in programs and services we have made over the past two years. It also helps us fulfill our sustainability goals.”

The project will provide monitors showing real-time solar radiance, electrical generation and use, and web-based interactive analysis for practical and educational purposes. SunLight will make industry professionals available to give presentations on solar engineering and science, renewable energy development, and financing careers. Students in several of MCCC’s programs, including Solar Energy Technology, Architecture and Engineering, will be involved in each phase of the project as part of their studies.

The entire project is scheduled for completion by the end of 2012.

#b#At Lawrenceville, The Solar Farm May Be a Sweet Deal#/b#

The Lawrenceville School recently announced plans to build a 30-acre, 6-megawatt solar energy farm that will provide 90 percent of the school’s energy.

The $30 million project, set to break ground before winter, is expected to generate 8,500 megatwatt-hours and offset more than 5,300 tons of carbon dioxide a year. The school will install pivoting solar panels that follow the sun on a 268-acre farm already located on the grounds of the 650-acre school. The array will be constructed by KDC Solar of Bedminster.

Ringing the solar array will be a series of bee-friendly wildflowers that will produce honey for the school and for sale. Pier V. Guidi of Bamboo Hollow Apiaries and Honey Farms LLC in Hillsborough will provide the bees, tend the hives, and produce the honey.

The solar array and the honey farm are expected to become “live laboratories” for Lawrenceville students, according to the school. Its location will make the solar farm invisible from Route 206 and only partially visible from a distant Lewisville Road.

“We’re delighted that our land will now produce two crops simultaneously — energy and honey — as well as provide a healthy habitat for bees and wildflowers,” said Graham Cole, Lawrenceville’s acting headmaster.

NJ Future: Put Solar

In the Right Places

The past few years have been kind to the solar energy movement, particularly in New Jersey. Residents and business owners increasingly see solar as a real alternative and are capitalizing on state-sponsored incentives to install solar panels on their homes and businesses.

But the growth in solar across New Jersey carries its own concerns. Though it is a clean, renewable way to generate energy, solar output gives a much lower per-acre yield than coal or nuclear. This means that solar setups require a lot of space. Installations intended to generate enough power for a complex of buildings, for example, often mean a large infrastructure that takes up several acres of ground. New installations at Princeton University, Mercer County Community College, and the Lawrenceville School are prime examples (see above).

The most effective use of space and solar is of major concern to NJ Future, an environmental and land use policy group based in Trenton. NJ Future advocates solar, but in the right way and in the right places. Chris Sturm, NJ Future’s senior director of state policy, says that given all the rooftops, landfills, and brownfields in New Jersey, there is no reason to develop large, industrial-scale solar farms on otherwise arable land.

NJ Future has no problem with small solar farms on private land (such as the 30-acre Lawrenceville School project), where installations take up relatively small, often otherwise unused space, Sturm says. Rather, NJ Future is against large tracts of farmland being converted to solar power plants.

There are two main reasons for this. First is pure land use. Why trade crop production for energy gathering that will not yield much energy for its scale? Second, Sturm says, NJ Future sees a conflict in state policy when it comes to converting large tracts of open farmland into solar power plants. “The state provides huge incentives for solar because it isn’t cost-effective otherwise,” she says. “But it also invests hugely in farmland preservation. Doing both doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

On August 24 Sturm delivered a statement to the Board of Public Utilities in Trenton, regarding BPU’s latest Energy Master Plan. Following is an excerpt from that presentation.

New Jersey Future encourages increased reliance on renewable energy sources including solar energy. Our state is unquestionably a national leader in solar installations, due in large part to subsidies that make it economically feasible. The Draft Energy Master Plan correctly points out that ratepayer subsidies can be used to incentivize certain types of projects that meet multiple state land-use goals, such as solar on brownfields and landfills.

New Jersey Future recommends:

1). The Energy Master Plan should note that single-use solar facilities are not necessarily the highest and best use for every brownfield and landfill location; some brownfields and landfills also happen to be prime redevelopment sites in key locations, such as next to train stations. Each proposed single-use solar site should be evaluated for its near-term redevelopment potential before installing ground-based solar arrays that will prevent more intensive development of the site.

We recommend that the BPU require applications for solar incentives to note whether the site is located in an approved redevelopment area, and if so, to seek assurance from the municipality that the proposed solar project will not impede local redevelopment efforts.

2). The Energy Master Plan should recognize and incentivize solar facilities in those locations consistent with other state policy objectives — brownfields, landfills, rooftops, and parking structures, that have few or no negative impacts on land preservation or redevelopment potential.

We recommend tiered incentives so that solar projects in the most advantageous locations — rooftops, brownfields and landfills — receive the most generous incentives.

While we expect solar facilities to continue to be sited on some combination of ground and rooftop, our research suggests that there is likely to be more than enough rooftop space in New Jersey to meet the long-term goals.

We engaged a graduate student intern who approached this question in two ways. First, he estimated the square footage of rooftop needed to meet the state’s solar development goals for 2026 at 327 million square feet This is a fraction of the state’s total impervious surfaces, which are estimated at 22 billion square feet.

Second, he looked at a national study that estimated the solar output capacity of New Jersey’s commercial and residential rooftops and found a total rooftop potential of more than 9,000 megawatts — more than double the state’s goal for 2026. Although both approaches apply assumptions across a broad area without detailed analysis, they suggest a great deal of additional potential for further use of rooftops.

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