Posted on April 7th, 2015

Outside the Box – Solar Farms

When you describe the landscape of my hometown of Urbana, Illinois (Go ILLINI!), it is common to say, “corn left, soybeans right.” No, there is not an abundance of breathtaking views like my adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado. There is a significant amount of trees, which helps in numerous ways, but most people wouldn’t describe Champaign County as a destination spot based on its scenery. It does have many other strong attributes, most of which we won’t visit here, and one of the best is its topsoil. Hmm. Not very glorious, is it? That would be a very hard pickup line to make work. “Hey there, I come from the land with the best topsoil in the world. Can I buy you a drink?” I imagine the response would be “no.” But good ole Urbana-Champaign is in the heartland and supplies a lot of what we eat in this country, so I guess I should be thankful to hail from America’s dinner table.

SolarSite_ChampaignIL_QB_8_3_2002_60cmcolor_ENHANCEThere are plenty of wide open spaces on the plains of Illinois, and this dormant site at First and Windsor will soon be earning its keep by serving as home to the solar farms for the University of Illinois. 60-cm color image captured by QuickBird on August 3, 2002 and comes courtesy of DigitalGlobe. Photo enhanced by Apollo Mapping.

On a warm, windy day back home, you could smell the South Farms just fine. Not that you’d ever want to, but it was a frequent reminder of where you were from and what the major industry of the region was. And as much as the winters were dark, grey, icy and bone-chillingly cold, the springs were wet, the summers hot and the falls idyllic. There is no better season than a Midwestern fall, and that also happens to be harvest time. So the sun goes on vacation in November, but it returns by April, and we have some pretty blue skies back home for months at a time (minus the occasional flash flood). Because of this, the University and community has decided to begin construction of a solar farm on campus this spring.

Covering 21-acres of a fallow fields in southwestern Urbana, the 5.87 megawatt solar farm will eventually supply nearly eight million kilowatts of energy a year, or roughly 2% of the demand for the Urbana campus. The total cost of the project over twenty years is estimated at just shy of $16 million dollars (which includes a $5 million premium for clean energy). This is a huge step for the flagship university in the state. The chancellor signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2008, pledging the campus to be carbon neutral by 2050. Other universities throughout the country are taking similar steps towards making their campuses more sustainable.

Solar farms, however, are a global initiative. Sun-rich states like Texas are building large arrays of photovoltaic arrays across the endless plains of the Lone Star State. Other countries where sunglasses are a must, like Australia, are also expanding their solar capacities. A Queensland, Australia field is set to be the largest solar farm in the country. It is estimated that the new farm will produce 100 times the energy generated by the largest solar farm system currently running in Oz; or an expected yield of 2 gigawatts annually. So while municipalities and universities are leading the charge for renewable energy from the Sun, it is also a booming market for private consumers. There are over 600,000 homes and businesses that are largely powered by the Sun in the United States. The future is so bright…

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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