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Parking under solar power

Massachusetts' Bristol Community College is now home to the largest solar parking canopy in New England, a 3.2-MW project that-interestingly-started out life as a wind project.

By Diane Mettler

New England's largest solar parking canopy to date-a 3.2-megawatt solar array covering 800 parking spaces on five acres of the Bristol Community College's (BCC) Fall River Campus-actually started out as a wind project.

Steven Kenyon, vice president of administration and finance at BCC, says that in late 2013, BCC received a grant to build a one-MW wind turbine, but when public perception of wind power changed in Massachusetts, they began looking for alternatives.

"The engineer at the college and I wanted to do a big project. We knew we had this zero net energy building coming down the pipeline, and we had been thinking about solar," says Kenyon.

BCC was no stranger to solar. The campus already had solar hot water and solar panels on most of its rooftops. They started talking with different solar companies about ground mount solar systems, which were much cheaper but would require cutting down five acres of trees-not exactly a statement that a college that takes sustainability seriously wanted to make.

The parking canopy turned out to be a perfect fit. All the trees could remain standing, and the project would be located right across the main road from the new building. The next step was how to finance it.

"A project like this is $7 million to $8 million, which we didn't have," says Kenyon. "So we started talking to PowerOptions, a nonprofit energy buying consortium for nonprofits and government entities."

PowerOptions has historically done electricity and natural gas programs where it leveraged the size of its consortium and the market to procure the best pricing in terms and conditions for its members for those two commodities. When solar power took off around 2011 and members were receiving unsolicited proposals to do solar in their facilities, PowerOptions decided it was a great opportunity to apply the model they'd developed on the commodity side, to the solar business.

"At the time I don't think anyone had done this," says Cynthia Arcate, president and CEO of PowerOptions. "Because solar projects are so site-specific and the costs are very different from site to site, the question was, how do you standardize programs that would work for all customers with projects of all sizes?

"What we were able to do eventually with our partner SunEdison was create a pricing structure that had all the components of the cost of a project in it, including a negotiated assumed Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) value and a cap on the return on investment. It would all be confidential between PowerOptions and SunEdison, and we would review each proposal for each customer to make sure that the pricing was consistent with the formula that we agreed to, but the customer would not see it. That was very unique nationally because no one else had been able to really standardize a power purchase agreement (PPA) pricing structure that could work for a consortium like that."


BCC was one of the first entities to step forward to take advantage of PPAs because it made good sense, said Arcate.

"Nonprofits and government entities don't have a tax appetite," explains Arcate. "So it doesn't make sense for them to put up the capital to build any kind of renewable facility because they can't take advantage of the investment tax credit. The purchase power agreement model is what works best for us."

Kenyon says the college needed the rate and the PPA to be less than the rate the college was currently paying through its contract for electricity. At the time, they were paying 13.2 cents per kilowatt hour, and through the PPA with SunEdison (the owner and operator of the solar facility) they were able to secure an 11.5 cent rate-about 13 percent less.

"It could have been lower," says Kenyon, "But we opted to do the fixed price for 20 years. And we feel good about it. We don't own the solar canopy; SunEdison owns it. Also, it's their obligation to maintain the system because we don't have the expertise or the high voltage personnel to maintain the system. I recommend a PPA to other colleges and universities."

Before things could get underway, a problem arose between the state's procurement rules and Power-Options' program.

"By statute, the project is actually exempt from state procurement rules, which worked really well for Bristol because then they didn't have to go out to bid-we had already done the competitive solicitation, and that's the theory behind it. But state property was involved, and we had to have a lease or license for the property and that wasn't exempt from the procurement rules."

In the end, statutes had to be amended to allow BCC to transfer real property rights as part of the program. Unfortunately, crafting the new statute delayed the project. It meant SunEdison couldn't start the project in April or May as planned, with a September completion when students returned. Instead, the project began in the fall, and work was done through one of the worst winters in New England's history.

Construction of the solar parking canopy at Bristol Community College was staggered to allow some parking for students and make it as least disruptive as possible. At the beginning of the semester-a peak time-all the parking spaces were open. After several weeks, the number of spaces available was gradually reduced. 

Construction was staggered to allow some parking for the students and make it as least disruptive as possible. "It was kind of a controlled disruption," recalls Kenyon. "At the beginning of the semester-peak times when everybody is on campus at the same time buying books, etc.-we had to open them all up. And then after a couple of weeks, we could start reducing the number of lots that we let the students access."

Over the winter, through record snowfall, construction crews were shoveling off the rooftops of the canopies so they could install panels. Because temperatures never rose above freezing in February, it was also difficult to pour concrete.

But despite the temperatures and logistics issues, the canopy was completed without injury.

Once erected, BCC experienced a couple of unforeseen outcomes, both good and bad.

One unexpected issue was water runoff. Even though the canopies weren't built to be water tight, they turned out to be pretty darn close. "When it rained, water ran to a downspout on the north end," says Kenyon. "During heavy rains this became an issue. So after the fact, grates and manholes were strategically placed to handle the extra water."

A positive outcome was year-round protection. Although students were looking forward to parking where they could get out of snow, they found they equally enjoyed getting out of the sun during hot days.

In addition to the 9,700 SunEdison SE-F330ByC-3Z panels and Advance Energy 500TX inverters that were installed, SunEdison also installed a new three-phase pad-mounted, Gavan Transformer 2000 KVA 4160Y/480Y, to replace the older transformer. Infrastructure in the neighborhood was beefed up as well, so on Sunday when the college is closed, the energy won't cause any issues.


"The electricity goes directly from the panels through the inverter into the transformer and then from the transformer into our maintenance building," says Kenyon. "Any excess goes out into the grid, so we do get the metering credits."

The solar facility, designed to power the net zero building to be completed in the spring of 2016, began producing power this August. Until spring, all the energy generated will help power the campus.

"In August, solar provided 90 percent of our electricity for the entire campus," says Kenyon. "When that building comes online (it's a very energy intensive building), that 90 percent will probably go down. Originally, we were thinking 50 percent, but I don't see it going below 70 or 75 percent. We're thrilled, obviously."

Kenyon says working with Power-Options was a key to this success. "They helped us with the contractual language. They literally did all the procurement. They could interview the vendors and knew what they were talking about."

Kenyon continues to tell other organizations they can have the same success. "We're a small community college, relatively speaking, but one of the largest ones in Massachusetts. I've told the smaller colleges, you don't need money. With the zero net energy, we actually saved money over the high performance building that was originally designed, and through a PPA, you don't need to have a lot of capital-you just need to be persistent and stick with it. I think that's what's great about these projects is how replicable they are for little or no cost."

The project will still continue to provide additional benefits to the campus. For one, the college is securing grants so that charging stations for electric vehicles can be added.

Also, there will be monitoring available for students. "Just like I can go on and monitor its production daily, weekly, monthly, annually, we'll put all that data up for students to access on LED displays in the lobby, along with the geothermal and the other energy efficiency boilers and the other systems that are being installed in the new building," says Kenyon.

It's not just PowerOptions, BCC, and SunEdison that are proud of the project-BCC has also received NACUBO's (National Association for College and University Business Offices) innovation award this year. BCC was also a Bellwether Award finalist. The Bellwether Awards annually recognize outstanding and innovative programs and practices that are successfully leading community colleges into the future "Honestly, the list of awards we've received in the Higher Education world…it's almost been non-stop," says Kenyon.

The University of Massachusetts and Bridgewater State University were also impressed. They're both close to signing agreements to do similar projects. "I think you'll see a lot more of these," says Kenyon.