Story by DAVID J. HILL
Follow one of the footpaths embedded within UB’s new Solar Strand. As you walk along, you pass row after row of configurations of solar panels, their support posts rising up seamlessly from the earth like tree trunks.
Stand just below the front of one of the three tallest arrays and trace its path upward. The effect is that of an infinity pool, the panels extending endlessly into the sky.
“It’s our goal to have K through 12 classes come into the Solar Strand to learn not just about solar energy, but about sustainability and what it means.”
—Ryan McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer
The view evokes a sense of wonder, and it's just one of many unique ways of seeing the UB Solar Strand, a collection of 3,200 photovoltaic panels designed by world-renowned landscape architect Walter Hood.
The Solar Strand measures 140 feet across and is approximately a quarter-mile long. It was funded by the New York Power Authority, which partnered with UB on the array's construction.
Hood’s artistic vision was to create a place where both the UB community and the public can interact with the wonders of science and technology.
As a result, there is a significant educational component to the Solar Strand. Each of the three largest configurations creates an outdoor classroom space behind it where students can study and learn, or simply reflect.
Soon, UB will reach out to the local education community to develop a program where students ranging from kindergarteners to high-schoolers can tour the Solar Strand and learn about renewable energy. “It’s our goal to have K through 12 classes come into the Solar Strand to learn not just about solar energy, but about sustainability and what it means,” says Ryan McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer.
The education component is critical and, combined with the Solar Strand's unrestricted design—it is one of the most publicly accessible solar panel installations in the world—will help break down the barriers that have existed with other solar projects.
Until the UB Solar Strand, most solar panel installations around the area were either cordoned off by fencing or barbed wire, or affixed to the roof of a building—essentially untouchable and out of sight.
It’s created a disconnect regarding the power source and the end result. You turn on the light switch and the room lights up, but from where does that electricity originate? The Solar Strand eliminates that disconnect.
Oakland-based landscape architect Walter Hood, whose portfolio includes designing public spaces across the U.S. and Asia, talks about his vision for the UB Solar Strand and how he sees it becoming a multidimensional addition to the UB campus. Hood won an international competition to design an array of up to 5,000 solar panels. The completed project features 3,200.
The idea is to get people thinking about the possibilities for renewable energy by allowing them to see it in action up close.
Walkways run between each of the three rows of the strand, connecting the array with local roads, the Center for Tomorrow and naturally regenerated meadows and wetland areas to create a welcoming environment.
It inspires visitors to think about the everyday possibilities of using a renewable energy source such as solar to power a home, or a garage, maybe an office.
The project is unique for a variety of reasons. First, it coincides with UB’s commitment to environmental stewardship. With a maximum rated capacity of 750 kilowatts, the Solar Strand will produce enough carbon-free energy to power hundreds of student apartments at UB. In addition, the site itself features recycled concrete, among other “green” elements.
Moreover, the array’s design is unlike any other solar installation, thanks to Hood’s creative genius. Hood, founding principal of Oakland-based Hood Design, devised the site based on the “strand” concept: a linear landscape formation and DNA fingerprint.
While entering campus to attend the Solar Strand dedication ceremony, Hood said he was reminded of the university’s growth during the 1970s and 1980s, when it moved outward from Buffalo to the North Campus in Amherst. That original Amherst landscape inspired his vision for the project.
“Our inspiration was that palimpsest,” he says, adding, “When you go out there, you’ll actually be enmeshed, not only in a cultural technology, but in a landscape that’s there, that’s always been there—we’re just sometimes afraid to look at it. What is so beautiful about this project is that technology...is the thing that allows us to see ourselves and understand how small we are in the context.”
The site will continue to develop throughout the summer, with the addition of benches and landscaping, among other finishing touches. Students, faculty and staff teamed up last fall to plant dozens of trees along the site.
The dialogue about solar and other alternative energy sources is also evolving. When you visit the site and see a large collection of solar panels slicing through the sky, you begin to realize that the possibilities for renewable energy are endless.
And as you leave the site and the array fades into the distance, the conversation is just beginning.
The UB Solar Strand is a fascinating combination of art and science. Here are some quick facts about the strand: