Solar Power in ithaca
A green Line of Work
Driving down the road between Northern Vermont and Ithaca, New York I drive by several solar farms. Like anyone else, I take interest in them but have never put much thought into the work required to get them there….
Scott Doyle is a Senior Planner for the Tompkins County Planning Department. Join us in a discussion about solar power use in Ithaca and the greater Tompkins County area.
Sheering the lawn
Vegetation in solar farms can become unruly and shade the panels around them or grow into the panels and it can be difficult to completely clean. This is the most expensive part of solar panel maintenance as the actual panel does not need as much attention….
Out of Site, Out of Mind
It was a freakishly hot day in late October. I’d run out the door, dressed in pants and a thermal. I made my way down to the absolute outskirts of campus, sweating despite the downhill trek. I tried to remember if there had been freak temperature spikes in my childhood. There could have been, but my mother had always warned me to dress appropriately beforehand. I felt like a child having failed to properly dress myself. I shook off the feeling and decided the heat wasn’t really that bad. I’d be inside soon with the AC.
I passed the remotely placed mail center and pulled out my phone. The email I received said that the Office of Energy Management and Sustainability was located behind Rogans, the campus’s affiliated gas station. I’ve filled up there plenty of times, but I never noticed an office building. I wandered over to a loading dock near the mail center. I was able to ask an employee for a second opinion, but they just pointed me toward what looked like more warehouses. That didn’t seem right to me, but I continued on. As ludacris as it sounded, maybe the school couldn’t afford a real office building. I was preparing to knock on as many doors of the poorly labeled warehouse as I had to until I found the right one. But as I rounded the corner of the huge rectangular building, the Office of Energy Management and sustainability came into view, clearly labeled with an aesthetic facade.
The waiting room had bowls of candy and mini bags of pretzels and plush chairs. High up on the wall, facing the entrance, was a television screen that showed a graph of how much energy Ithaca’s Geneva solar farm produced over the course of that day. The screen rotated between hourly solar production, to monthly, to yearly. After a few minutes of internal debate over whether I should shove a few packs of pretzels into my bag, the director descended down a large staircase. We shook hands and he lead me up to the office.
The hum of the air conditioner and the stark white walls made my brain go sort of numb. Once the office door closed, it was incredibly quiet and still, like a sensory deprivation vortex. Despite feeling somewhat out of wits, I arranged my face into a friendly expression and attempted to start the interview. I came prepared with a list of questions.
“So which buildings, or what percentage of buildings, on campus are currently powered by solar?”
The director clasped his hands in front of his face briefly and then removed them to speak. “So, none of the buildings are actually powered by solar. We have a solar farm up in Geneva and what happens is, the energy that the farm produces is distributed in the town of Geneva. However, we get the tax credits, since it’s our farm, and those credits are taken off our electric bill.” I nodded my head. I already knew those things. He’d come to speak to my Environmental Technology lab last semester and all of what he was saying had been explained in a presentation. But I wasn’t offended that he didn’t recognize me. I didn’t want to seem like a know-it-all, so I tried to look curious.
“So none of the buildings on campus are technically solar powered-”
“So then, what percentage of campus would be solar powered if the Geneva farm did transmit energy directly here?”
“Well, it’s hard to say… probably about 10%”. He paused briefly, turning something over in his head. “But you know, Peggy Ryan Williams has a geothermal heating and cooling system. That was a very big, expensive project...“ I stayed silent. He paused again and then tilted his head in a conceding manor. “But you know, it’s unfortunate, the building isn’t airtight. So in the winter especially, a lot of faculty members bring in space heaters for their offices, which get plugged into the walls and use energy…”
“Huh. That sucks. I didn’t know that...” He’d drifted off topic. “So is achieving direct solar energy at all an option for the college? Like, can we put panels on buildings?”
“Well… no. See, when we got our buildings insured, solar panels were not included in the warranty. So if something were to go wrong with one of the buildings, say concerning the roof or exterior, and a maintenance worker came to fix it and found a bunch of solar panels around the area that need to be fixed, it could completely complicate the process of fixing it and void our insurance. It might be a possibility once our buildings are remodeled, but that won’t happen for a while.”
“Huh… so then, are there any further construction plans in the making, whether they be attached to campus or remote?”
The director opened his mouth, closed it, and once again, clasped his hand in front of his face. “Ideas are always circulating. Right now, we’re more in the paperwork stages of things. So once I get a project approved, we’ll be able to move forward with marketing and production.”
In retrospect, I should have pushed the subject. But in my attempts to be polite to a stranger, I sensed that he didn’t want to talk about it any further. I spurted my next question off the top of my head, more in an effort to sooth the conversation than to gain relevant information. “So exactly how much energy does the Geneva field produce?”
He looked relieved. “There’s a website, I’m not sure if you’ve seen it. It shows how much energy the Geneva plant produces by the hour. So on sunny days like today, the graph is high, and other days it’s a bit lower. And then you can change the scale of the graph so that it shows energy production by month and year. It’s very cool.”
“Oh right, I think I have seen that before.”
“It used to be more prominently displayed on the school website, but it’s been moved since then. Have you ever seen pictures of the farm?”
“Um, no, at least not many.”
“Well here, I’ll bring up some files.” There was a huge monitor on the wall of his office, which connected to his computer, most likely for this exact purpose.
Once he pulled up the files, he stood up and began pointing to things on the screen. “This is the road that leads to the field. It’s made of uh, some kind of course stone, about fifty to seventy feet long, I’d say. And the purpose of the road is to comply with zoning restrictions and what not. They don’t want the panels to be visible from the main road.”
“Huh.” Too bad he couldn’t remember what kind of stone it was.
He kept rotating slide pictures. “So here’s the solar field. You can see how big the panels are and each one is raised a few feet off the ground.” He kept scrolling through the files, trying to find the best pictures. “This is a good one because you can see how long the field is. Oh, and this one!” He laughed. “We found a little birds nest build into the support beams.”
“Awe, cute.” It was pretty cute…
I left the office feeling more stressed than I had been before I entered. I’d already committed to writing about campus solar and as far as I could tell, there was no story to be told about Ithaca’s solar progress. I journeyed back up the hill in the sweltering heat, once again cursing my black, thermal outfit.
Most of Ithaca’s buildings on-campus were built in the ‘60s and are still used today. Although the college has done a great job with new construction, they have only scratched the surface. I think they need to focus on updating buildings if they are going to do anything to benefit from solar….
iT’S EXPENSIVE, BUT AFFORDABLE
I knew that solar power is a much-needed resource in this era of climate change. I knew that solar power had its advantages in terms of its friendliness towards the environment. I knew that solar power is a growing industry in the United States as more and more people move towards renewable resources….