Taking Climate Action for a Brighter Future
Vice President Kamala Harris pointed them out as one of the reasons she chose the University at Buffalo as the place in September to tout the Inflation Reduction Act and Congress’ aggressive climate investment.
They are the new solar arrays sprinkled around UB’s North Campus as part of an on-site solar project that began in 2020. Now, with utility company work nearly completed, UB’s on-site solar arrays are beginning to produce electricity. In fact, they will top out at 12.7 million kWh — or enough to power more than 1,750 homes or charge over 1 trillion smartphones — making UB one of the largest on-campus producers of renewable energy in the country.
The project — composed of five solar arrays on university-owned land on the North Campus, as well as four rooftop solar installations on UB buildings — has increased campus capacity by 15 times current levels.
“The on-site solar project was created as part of UB’s aggressive new climate action plan, UB’s 10 in 10, which calls for the university to achieve climate neutrality by 2030,” says Laura Hubbard, UB’s vice president for finance and administration. “The completion of our on-site solar puts the university another step closer to significantly reducing our carbon footprint, which has already decreased by a third over the past several years.”
Harris highlighted UB’s sustainability track record in September, saying, “The work that is happening here is very exciting and really a model for our country.”
The project is part of an innovative Power Purchase Agreement, or PPA. UB does not own the panels; nor did it pay for them to be installed. Instead, UB has agreed to purchase all the clean energy produced at them over a 20-year period. The university’s calculations and estimates forecast that this will be cost neutral, Hubbard noted, adding that the PPA affords the university a measure of predictability and stability in its utility budget.
The majority of the renewable energy being produced is derived from a series of ground-mounted solar arrays comprising more than 22,600 solar panels. One grouping, a series of three solar arrays, is known as the Bizers given its location near Bizer Creek on UB’s North Campus. Another array, Creekside, is immediately behind the Creekside Village student apartments and produces more electricity than the housing complex uses. And the largest array, called the UB Solar Stroll, is located in a large field near the Amherst bike path on the eastern edge of the campus.
All five of the ground mounts leveraged the design of UB’s Solar Strand and remain barrier-free, allowing nature and humans to become closer with the way in which clean renewable electricity is generated.
“It’s important that our renewable energy be integrated into the campus in alignment with not only our long-term planning but also as a way to reinforce the living laboratory and experiential learning opportunity that this new initiative offers to our university campus,” said Tonga Pham, associate vice president of Facilities.
There are also four new rooftop-mounted solar arrays on UB’s North Campus, a challenging endeavor given that none of the buildings on the North Campus — much of which was built in the 1970s — were initially designed for solar energy. The university conducted an extensive survey of all campus rooftops and selected the four buildings — Baird Hall, Center for the Arts, Helm Facility Warehouse and the John Beane Center — based on each rooftop’s age and structural integrity.
Going forward, UB is considering mandating all new construction provide the ability to install rooftop solar on buildings, similar to a measure California recently enacted requiring builders to include solar power and battery storage in most new construction projects.
“As a major public research university, these solar panels speak — they communicate and reinforce our value of taking responsibility for our actions as an institution,” said UB Chief Sustainability Officer Ryan McPherson.
“The on-site solar project is a reflection of the fact that we know that UB uses a lot of electricity, and we need to take responsibility for that usage in a clean, renewable way,” McPherson added. “The solar arrays are a visual reminder that we are putting our actions front and center.”
Buffalo-based Solar Liberty installed the ground-mount and rooftop arrays with key support and guidance from UB Facilities.
“The University at Buffalo is a pioneer in the adoption of solar energy for college campuses, employing designs that significantly reduce carbon emissions and operational costs while uniquely incorporating educational tools that students have and will learn from for decades,” says Solar Liberty Vice President Nathan Rizzo.
“For over ten years, Solar Liberty has been honored to be UB’s partner of choice for the engineering and construction of numerous solar arrays, beginning with the Solar Strand in 2012 and continuing through this year with the new roof- and ground-mounted systems.”
UB’s on-site solar installations received support from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s REV Campus Challenge.
NYSERDA President and CEO Doreen M. Harris lauded UB’s climate neutrality goal and the on-site solar initiative.
“The leadership shown by the University at Buffalo through this climate action plan will serve as an example for other higher education institutions that are interested in developing cleaner, more sustainable campuses,” Harris said. “On-site solar provides the tangible benefit of clean energy for students and the community at large, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions, a healthier place to learn, live and work, and a robust landscape to fight climate change at the local level.”
A series of solar arrays will be constructed between the John James Audubon Parkway and Bizer Creek. This project will require the removal of some selected trees — many of which have been infected by the Emerald Ash Beetle — with an equivalent amount of new trees being replanted on the campus.
Enjoy walking through a solar field! The largest concentration of new solar panels will be placed to the east of Millersport Highway on university-owned property in a large field near the Amherst bike path and 9/11 Memorial Grove. The installation will contain approximately 5 megawatts of generating capacity. Construction will not affect people’s ability to use and/or visit the bike path and memorial grove, as both will remain open and accessible.
Why is the University doing this project?
We live in complicated and changing times — perhaps more so than at any other period in history. We are starting to transition to systems that are more circular, regenerative, inclusive, effective and that mirror the Haudenosaunee principle: to make every decision considering its effect on seven generations.
This change is beginning to happen because we are listening to our scientists who are communicating that if we wait until we can feel the impact, it will be too late to stop it. We are seeing the economic value and business case that is being created by reducing our emissions. New York State is establishing the legal and regulatory framework to further UB’s work. Our students and young people are demanding immediate action and, most importantly, our lives depend upon our action. Read more about our work in our Climate Action Plan.
What is the timeline of this project?
Construction is set to begin in early spring 2021 and finish in fall 2021. The solar arrays are planned to generate clean renewable energy for at least twenty years.
How is the University paying for this?
Key to the process is what’s known as a power purchase agreement, or PPA. It’s a different, more cost-effective way for large energy users to purchase power. For many bigger institutions, like a city or a university, annual energy costs are unpredictable and uncontrollable because the electricity rates vary depending on the market. Utility costs can fluctuate, but generally increase over a period of years.
A PPA, however, is a contract that locks in a fixed energy price over an extended period of time, anywhere from 10 to 30 years. That means that the buyer purchasing the power will be able to know for a long time exactly what their energy costs will be, and can budget accordingly.
How will these projects impact the wetlands they are on?
The solar arrays are not built on any designated wetlands and have cleared the state environmental review process.
Will trees need to be cut down to make room for the solar arrays?
A smaller grove of trees near the I990 entrance ramp and select others along Bizer Creek and the Audubon will need to be removed for solar installation and to reduce shade. Many of these trees would have needed to be removed regardless of the project as they have sadly been infected by the Emerald Ash Beetle and are dying. We will also be planting new trees on campus in excess of those that will need to be removed
Can I still use the bike path?
Yes. The bike path will not be affected by the construction of the solar field—in fact we think it will be enhanced!
Are the solar panels hot?
No! The panels are not hot and you cannot burn yourself by touching them (but please be careful with them!).
Will solar panels generate electricity during cloudy, rainy, or snowy days? What about at night?
Yes it will. Contrary to the conventional wisdom about Buffalo's weather, data from the National Weather Service shows that from May through November, Buffalo is the sunniest and driest city in the Northeast, making it an ideal candidate for generating solar power.
This project is made possible by funding through NYSERDA's REV Campus Challenge. For more information on UB's entire REV project, please visit the link below.