This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Site preparation to begin on ‘Solar Strand’

The “Solar Strand” will feature 5,000 photovoltaic panels stretching in three polished rows from north to south between the Audubon Parkway and Maple Road east of Flint.

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    Architect Walter Hood talks about the solar array. Watch the video.

Published: August 19, 2010

Workers will begin mowing, clearing and grading land adjacent to Flint Road next month to make way for “The Solar Strand,” a 1.1 megawatt solar-energy array designed by internationally renowned landscape architect Walter Hood and funded by a $7.5 million grant from the New York Power Authority.

The installation, with 5,000 photovoltaic (PV) panels powering more than 700 student apartments at UB, is calculated to reduce carbon emissions by more than 500 metric tons per year. That will bring the university closer to its goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030 under its Climate Action Plan. But the project is more than a means of generating energy.

The array will be a work of public art, creating a visually stunning gateway to the North Campus with panels stretching in three polished rows from north to south between Audubon Parkway and Maple Road east of Flint. Hood’s concept will embed public spaces within the landscape with trails and walkways connecting the installation with wetland gardens featuring ground covers, stands of trees and shrubs that attract birds and other wildlife.

Two of the tallest panels in Hood’s design will act as roofs shading public gathering spaces in the style of the giant solar pergola on Barcelona’s Forum Esplanade. These tilted panels will rise at a 30-degree angle, with one end 4 feet off the ground and the other stretching to a height of 25 feet. Underneath, guests will have the opportunity to study the panels’ circuitry in “social rooms” furnished with seating and lighting. University officials expect visitors, including students and local residents, to use the space for classes, tours and casual activities.

The Solar Strand owes its name to its panels’ linear formation, which resembles the pattern of a DNA fingerprint. The quarter-mile-long strip of land that workers will clear and grade will be narrow—less than 140 feet wide.

The project, a component of “Building UB: The Comprehensive Physical Plan,” supports the UB 2020 long-range strategic plan that envisions UB as a world-class university with vibrant campuses, strong connections with the local community and a commitment to environmental stewardship. The array is also a cornerstone of the New York Power Authority’s renewable energy program.

Officials have invited Hood, founding principal of Hood Design and professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at the University of California-Berkeley, to UB for a ceremony celebrating the installation of the first PV panels and supporting structures. Work is scheduled to be complete next May.

The project, including the array and surrounding landscape, will merge with the campus’s existing ecology, with wetland gardens planted in low areas where water naturally drains. Pedestrian paths will connect the solar installation to a nearby creek. Narrow strips of mowed grasses will separate wider strips of unmowed grasses, creating a striped pattern that will complement the strand’s linear design and recall the campus’s agricultural past.

Hood’s plan also reserves future opportunities for the creation of areas dedicated to research and development and workforce development and training, and for the further elaboration of connections to the landscape and local ecology.

The installation already is garnering national attention for its beauty and innovation. The Architect’s Newspaper, an industry publication, ran a story in April titled “Electric Landscape.” The article’s opening lines answered a question: “Can a large-scale solar array also be a work of land art? Officials at the University (at) Buffalo believe so.” Architectural Review, a respected British journal with an international circulation in the English-speaking world, devoted a page to an article with the headline “Energy in the landscape: turning a solar array on a US college campus into land art.”

Campus Architect Robert G. Shibley says “The Solar Strand” will help define the “iconography” of solar power in the 21st century. The imagery that oil, the energy source of the 20th century, evokes includes rigs and derricks. What will people think of in coming years when they think of solar?

“Some communities have shunned solar projects because they were thought to be ugly, industrial,” Shibley says. “We have a solar installation that’s an art installation, something that’s beautiful.”

Adds Hood: “I’m hoping it dispels the idea that power generation technologies, particularly for solar and even wind, need to be autonomous in our lives—that they need to be somewhere separate, out of sight, out of mind. What this project suggests is that these structures can be integrated in our lives. They can be beneficial, not only to a power company, but also beneficial to a neighborhood, a community. They don’t have to be ugly. We don’t have to be fearful that they will be distasteful.”