U. uses solar power to save energy costs

December 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Rutgers’ efforts to save money on energy bills and avoid harming the environment through renewable energy sources can be described as fairly successful, at least when it comes to the installation of two solar power projects on Livingston Campus.

Even though the University completed the solar projects behind schedule, they had no cost overruns and are achieving the electricity cost savings goals Rutgers set for them.

The first Livingston solar project was built during the 2008 to 2009 academic year and included a 7-acre solar farm that cost $10 million to build, according to an October 2009 press release from Rutgers Today.

The solar farm was also expected to reduce utility expenses by $200,000 in the first year of operation and was projected to produce approximately 1.4 million watts of electric power each year, according to the press release.

The second Livingston solar project, built in 2012, entails a 32-acre solar canopy built on top of the Livingston parking lots, and was projected to produce an average of about 8 million watts of electric power per year, according to an April 2011 press release from Rutgers Today.  

Rutgers projected the solar canopy to cost about $40.8 million to build, and predicted it would bring in about $28 million in additional energy costs savings over a 28 year period, according to the April press release. In addition, the canopy is supposed to double as a car shelter from rain and snow.

According to electricity cost and usage history reports obtained through Michelle Lee, accountant for Facilities Business Administration, the solar farm produced about 1.735 million kilowatt-hour of electricity between June 2009 and May 2010, the first full year of the farm’s operation.

A kilowatt-hour is used to measure how much electricity a device is using or producing at one time, said Michael Kornitas, Rutgers’ energy conservation manager. For example, leaving a 100-watt lamp on for an hour should use 100 watt-hours of electricity, he said.

The construction resulted in approximately $225,000 in electricity savings, assuming an average unit price of about 13 cents per kwh during that period.

The solar canopy produced in May 2013 generated about 1.19 million kwh of electricity. The electricity helped Rutgers save about $135,000 a month in utility costs, which amounts to about $1.57 million per year.

Rutgers Utilities Director Joe Witkowski said global warming concerns, combined with the potential of cutting down energy costs, motivated Rutgers to adopt the solar panels.

“Anything we could do to reduce our carbon footprint is a good thing,” he said. “We actually have to walk the [walk].”

Both projects were built behind schedule, according to the construction contract’s original building schedule for the solar farm. The work was scheduled for completion by February 2009.

But according to the Status of Significant Projects report, published in June 2013, the project was not completed until June 2009.

The solar canopy project was similarly behind schedule. Rutgers planned to have construction finished by August 2012, but did not complete it until this past January, according to the Status of Significant Projects report.

According to the contract documents for each solar project obtained through the Open Public Records Act, Rutgers awarded both projects to SunDurance, an Edison-based company.

SunDurance is a sector of Conti Group, a civil engineering firm that specializes in electric power facilities, industrial facilities and commercial buildings, according to SunDurance’s bid proposal that came with the contract.

SunDurance’s past projects include installing a solar farm for the Atlantic County Utilities Authority’s wastewater treatment facility in 2006, a 2010 solar canopy project for William Paterson University and a 2010 solar roof for the New York Jet’s Training Facility in Florham Park, N.J., according to the profile they released with their bid proposal.

Kornitas said SunDurance was chosen for the solar farm and canopy projects because the selection committee thought it was the most efficient and reliable company.

“They had the best price, the best wattage,” Kornitas said. “More wattage for less money.”

Joan Sitler, senior project manager at the University Facilities and Capital Planning Department, said one reason she picked SunDurance was because they used higher-quality panels than Rutgers requested. The panels produced even more power than Rutgers had hoped.  

“They put their best foot forward, and that’s why they were chosen,” she said. “It’s not that the other companies were not capable of providing a good product, it’s just that SunDurance provided the best product.”

Glen Vliet, the project manager for the solar farm, said this was his first experience dealing with SunDurance, but he had a good first impression of the company.

Vliet said Livingston campus was the best place to put the solar projects because it best fit the geography of Rutgers.

“We had plenty of space [at Livingston],” he said.

Rutgers decided the solar farm should be a ground facility rather than a rooftop facility, Vliet said, otherwise there would be much more wear and tear on the roofs, foot traffic during maintenance work and pressure from the panels themselves would harm the rooftops.

“Every time you put up new equipment, that’s another opportunity for roof leaks,” Vliet said. “That’s something Rutgers wanted to minimize.”

Rutgers financed the solar farm with a $4.3 million budget appropriation and about a $4.9 million rebate through the Consumer On-Site Rebate Energy program for a total of $9.19 million, according to an application Rutgers completed to participate in the CORE program.

The CORE program works by reimbursing participating public facilities at a certain rate for each kwh of power produced each year, and the reimbursements are capped at $5 million, according to the application.

Witkowski said Rutgers did not use the CORE program for the solar canopy, since it was defunct by the beginning of the project. Instead, the United States Department of Energy covered 30 percent of the construction costs.

The remaining 70 percent was financed with a 15-year lease program, Witkowski said.

Rutgers would lease the solar panels for 15 years, during which they would make monthly payments and then buy the panels once the 15 years is up, he said.

Rutgers financed the monthly payments with revenue from the Solar Renewable Energy Certificate, which entitles its participants to receive one SREC credit for each megawatt of energy produced, Witkowski said.

The exchange functions like a share of stock they can sell on the open market, he said.

The SREC credit was created to allow public facilities such as Rutgers to sell green energy to utility companies, who by law must have a certain percentage of their electricity come from renewable sources. The open market determines the value of each SREC, so prices fluctuate constantly and sometimes dramatically, Witkowski said.

“The market is very unstable in this business,” he said. “Right now, a SREC is about $100-125 a megawatt, but one time, it was over $600 a megawatt. We’re not getting what we expected, but we’re meeting all our obligations financially.”

SunDurance calculated that Rutgers would achieve about $9.198 million in energy savings over that same period, according to their bid proposal’s accompanying documentation.

SunDurance assumed a retail price of $0.125 per kwh in annual electric output, which would increase by an average of 6 percent a year for the next 25 years, according to its bid proposal documentation, also obtained with OPRA.

Todd Martin, SunDurance’s vice president for business development, said economists cannot perfectly predict what kind of economic and energy trends will occur in the future, the same solar project can be several different estimates as to future electricity rates and expected energy savings.

“You don’t really know where electricity rates are going,” Martin said. “It’s a moving target, [but] it gets you in the ballpark [on how much money you can expect to save].”

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part-series on the Livingston solar projects. Look for part two in tomorrow’s issue.

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