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Ivy League college graduates to solar power

Cornell University, a member of the top-notch Ivy League group of colleges, has installed its first large-scale solar project, a 2-MW project that is part of an overall effort by the university to replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy and achi

By Paul MacDonald

In terms of employing renewable energy, when something works, it can work really well—and that seems to be the case with solar power at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

In 2014, the Ivy League college completed its first large scale solar installation alongside ABM, which built the project.

The university has a long history of using renewable energy. Cornell's first megawatt-scale renewable electricity generation project was in 1904, when the current hydroelectric plant at Fall Creek Gorge went online, supplying the school with power. Cornell was one of the first university campuses to employ that hydro power for electricity to light its grounds.

The recently completed 2-MW solar project was built by ABM, which provided EPC services and will provide ongoing operations and maintenance (O&M) services. ABM's joint venture partner, Building Energy, financed and owns the solar project in partnership with Distributed Sun LLC, who developed the project for Cornell. So the Cornell solar project was truly a team effort, says Ted O'Shea, vice president of energy at ABM—it also involved working closely with the power engineering group at the university.

When Cornell put out a solicitation for the solar project, a condition was that the winning proposal would have to submit, and win, incentive payments from the New York State Electric Research and Development Agency (NYSERDA). The payments are part of a program—the NY-Sun initiative—by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that saw $54 million in assistance for 79 large-scale solar energy projects across the state. The new projects are expected to add 64 megawatts to the state's solar capacity.

Distributed Sun was selected to develop the project and was successful in getting NY-Sun funding for about one-third of the project cost. The 30-year power purchase agreement Cornell signed with Distributed Sun is actually the first third-party energy supply agreement signed by the school.

Distributed Sun selected ABM and Building Energy as partners to further develop, build, and operate the solar facility.

Although Cornell has done a number of much smaller solar projects, this is the university's first large-scale solar project. With first-time clients, the developers and builders often have to walk clients through the solar power projects.

"Typically, we will do a lot of work with our clients to educate them and bring them through the process, but Cornell has their own large central energy plant on campus with its own engineering staff, and they are very technically knowledgeable," said O'Shea.

For ABM, the Cornell project was a good fit, considering the company has focused on the Municipal, University, Schools, and Hospitals (MUSH) market for 20 years, says O'Shea. "We've built over 150 projects for MUSH market clients."

K-12 schools in the U.S. have shown explosive growth in their use of solar energy over the last decade, according to a recent study from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and the Solar Foundation. As of this past September, there were 3,727 K-12 schools in the United States with solar installations, meaning nearly 2.7 million students attend schools with solar energy systems. The 3,727 PV systems have a combined capacity of 490 MW.

 Cornell University's 2-MW solar project was built by ABM, which provided EPC services and will provide ongoing operations and maintenance (O&M) services. ABM's joint venture partner, Building Energy, financed and owns the solar project in partnership with Distributed Sun LLC, who developed the project for Cornell.

A number of universities have also installed solar projects. In fact, the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, a network of more than 680 colleges and universities addressing climate change and sustainability, was set up in 2007 and includes colleges and universities in all fifty states and the District of Columbia—representing nearly 6.5 million students, about one third of the U.S. higher education student population.

Cornell, a signatory to the commitment, prides itself on being the first university to commit to the Kyoto Protocol, back in 2001. The university has an ambitious mission to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, eliminating campus greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuel energy with renewable energy, including solar power. The new solar project will produce about one percent of Cornell's electricity per year.

The Cornell solar project is perhaps unique due to its high profile as part of the top-notch Ivy League group of schools.

"This is one of the most prestigious projects that we've been involved with," says O'Shea. "We're very proud of it, too, because it has an educational component to it."

The project includes a separate area with ten solar panels and an inverter, which will be dedicated to academic research. These panels are installed on a single axis tracker system that allows for adjustment to facilitate research studies, and they will be available for Cornell-sponsored research and teaching projects as well as for collaborative projects with local community K-12 schools, colleges, and their students. Tours of the solar facility are offered, and system data is available on the Cornell Building Dashboard http://buildingdashboard.cornell.edu and the Cornell Energy Management & Control Systems portal at http://portal.emcs.cornell.edu/SnyderRoadSolarSystem

"This will allow the university to study the production of those panels and measure their performance, based on a variety of variables," says O'Shea.

Aside from sending a clear message about Cornell's commitment to renewable energy, the solar farm also has great educational value, said Prof. Tobias Hanrath, chemical and biomolecular engineering, who is also a faculty fellow at Cornell's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. "I've taught a course on solar energy for several years. Now, instead of just showing pictures of solar cell farms, we can actually take the class out to the farm and see the solar cells in action."

The project involved installing 6,766 Jinko solar photovoltaic panels on an 11-acre site owned by Cornell, adjacent to the nearby Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. O'Shea said that due to its location across from the airport, they had to obtain FAA approval for the project, but it was relatively straightforward. "We submitted a glare study and other technical information to the FAA about the project, and the approval time was about four months." The Jinko solar panels used on the project are designed to absorb the visible spectrum and are treated with an anti-glare coating.


The unused site was covered with scrub brush, with some trees on the periphery. Civil work involved clearing and leveling the site, and the installation of friction tiles in the soil to support the racking structure.

The solar project is adjacent to a brownfield site, which was not an issue, but something to consider, says O'Shea. "We were just very aware that it was there, and we made sure that we did not do anything to have an impact on the brownfield site—we had buffer zones to stay clear of it."

Aside from that, O'Shea says there were the standard phase-one environmental studies that are typical for this size and type of project.

Site access was good, reports O'Shea, with a nearby adjacent county road.

From start to finish, the project went well, he added.

"A project the size of the Cornell solar array is a one-phase project," he said. "Usually what happens is the main equipment—the modules, inverters, and racking—take 90 to 120 days to deliver from when you order them. When we've got the Notice to Proceed, we are out there and mobilize six to eight weeks before the major solar equipment hits the ground, when we start the civil construction.

"Once the equipment gets on site, we erect the racking system, mount the modules and inverters, and connect it all up. It's usually four to six weeks to do the major installation and the interconnection, for a 2-MW project like Cornell."

Advanced planning and coordination can be one of the most important phases for the success of a solar project. But there is still a "hurry up and wait" period—something that builders are very familiar with—that most projects have to go through, says O'Shea. "You can do a whole lot of work, then it is submitted for approval, and it can be months after that, but when the trigger event occurs—it could be a permit or an inter-connection agreement—you have to be ready to go." Being the EPC contractor, they are waiting for that event to happen but at the same time, making sure they have the resources lined up when it's "go time", he says.

A challenge for the Cornell project came at the front end, says O'Shea. "As soon as the permits were approved, we had to move from preliminary pricing to final pricing, going through the procurement process and selecting equipment with our major vendors in a very short period of time.

"It was a big challenge, but we were able to mitigate that because we have a lot of existing relationships with vendors, so we were able to get pricing and scope pulled together in a reasonable time.

 The Cornell University solar project involved the installation of 6,766 Jinko solar photovoltaic panels on an 11-acre site owned by Cornell, adjacent to the nearby Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. Due to the project's location across from the airport, the university had to obtain FAA approval, but it was relatively straightforward

"I think the first 30 days of the project was probably the biggest challenge time-wise, making sure the project management was done when everyone and everything was moving so quickly," O'Shea added.

Racking on the project was from Italian company Greentech, and Ingeteam Inc. supplied its latest INGECON SUN Power Station U 1.76 MW inverters.

Although it is not involved with this aspect of projects, O'Shea noted that financing can also be a challenge with solar power. "Securing the capital is a big part of the solution for a solar project. Financing solar projects is complex, relative to other asset classes, because you have the tax equity, and in the case of Cornell, you have the very unique and specific requirements to obtain the NYSERDA incentive payments.

"Layering those two things together, with the typical debt and equity that goes into any asset funding, was one of the more challenging aspects of the project."

The capital sources included development capital from Distributed Sun, sponsor equity from Building Energy Holding USA, and a tax equity investment managed by Sol Systems.

Being the EPC contractor, ABM chose and sourced all the equipment for the solar project. "But we reviewed it with the engineering staff at Cornell, who approved it. The Cornell people also reviewed the design drawings, which included the equipment specs. It was a very collaborative approach and a very good partnership."

The university has a long standing relationship with local utility New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG). Cornell and NYSEG are using "remote net metering" to credit the university for electricity generated by the solar facility.

A regional electrical contractor was used on the project. While it does use outside contractors, O'Shea explained that ABM tries to do as much work as it can on a project. "We try to self-perform as much as we can and control as many links in the services value chain to our clients. When we have a local office, we try to be the guys out there turning wrenches.

"We're not an equipment manufacturer or affiliated with a manufacturer, so we are technology agnostic and focused on service. What we do in the energy space, along with our partner Building Energy, is bring the technical energy solution, the financial solution, and do the permitting and the construction."

They've integrated a development company—Building Energy—with an EPC/O&M company—ABM—with the joint venture. "We really endeavor to provide a turnkey service to our clients where they can get all of these things through a single point of contact."

Although ABM was originally solely a facilities services company, it has expanded into renewables over the last five years. Their typical solar project size ranges from one to 10 MWs, though O'Shea said they have some larger projects in the pipeline, in the 50 to 60 MW range.

For close to the three years, ABM has had a joint venture EPC/O&M company with Italy-based Building Energy (which has a U.S. office in Washington, D.C.), and they have completed two solar projects so far. Four additional projects, with a combined value of $30 million, are currently under construction, which has added significantly to ABM's renewables portfolio.

"Building Energy is vertically integrated," explains O'Shea. "They can do the development, finance, and own a solar project, but they also want to self-perform the EPC, which is where ABM and our joint venture with Building Energy comes in."

Essentially the joint venture is able to offer clients a complete package deal. "With our partnership, we can do all the things that an independent power producer can do," says O'Shea. It works well for the clients and the companies, says O'Shea. "It's one of the best joint venture partnerships ABM has."