By Dylan Whisman
This article was corrected Feb. 20, 2023 with updated data.
Anyone who enters campus on University Drive will notice a field of shiny solar panels located north of Parking Lot A3. In spring 2021, a short segment from “Channel Magazine,” “Campus Installs Cost-Saving Solar Array,” briefly highlighted the addition to CI.
The article discussed expected savings and energy production and then-Interim President Richard Yao said, “The array will make CSUCI one of the largest producers of green energy in the California State University system and will result in significant cost savings for our campus.”
To gather more information and updates on the solar panel field since its installation, The CI View spoke with Sustainability & Energy Director Roxane Beigel-Coryell. Her role includes managing the university’s sustainability programs and initiatives, utility consumption and billing, energy efficiency efforts and water conservation. She also keeps track of data from the solar panels, maintains the field through communications with Duke Energy and works on publicizing CI’s energy efficiency efforts.
The solar array was completed in the winter of 2021, several months after its proposed completion date. The solar panels did not start producing energy for CI until March 2022. Hired after the project was underway, Beigel-Coryell was able to share the explanations for the delays.
Prior to construction or excavation, nests of an endangered species of bird, Least Bell’s vireo, were found. To avoid disrupting their nesting cycle, the project was pushed back six months so the birds could hatch and leave the area naturally. CI also engaged in the lengthy process of switching their energy provider from Southern California Edison to Duke Energy, who own and funded the solar array project.
Additionally, during its first test run in Dec. 2021, an inverter caught fire and had to be replaced. This has only happened a few times and Beigel-Coryell explained the forward-thinking design of the solar array:
“All of the panels and equipment were constructed above the 100-year flood line, making them safe from flood damage. The panels were also built to withstand most California weather conditions like Santa Ana winds and rainstorms.”
During initial drafting stages, CI considered building the solar panels over one of the parking lots on campus. Beigel-Coryell explained that this idea was scrapped because it required the construction of a more robust structure and was much more expensive than the final design choice. CI chose the floodplain north of Parking Lot A3 because the land was incapable of supporting heavy campus buildings, making it perfect for a solar panel installation.
In its final form, the solar array contains over 12,000 individual panels. With the initial goal of providing around 68% of CI’s energy needs, the array has exceeded those expectations. Data provided by Beigel-Coryell showed that from Jan. to Aug. of 2022 showed the panels accounted for 75% of CI’s consumption. While CI only used 45% of the energy produced by the panels, this was because of the sun cycle and the lack of energy storage on campus.
Extra unused energy produced by the panels is sent back into the local grid, of which CI receives utility bill credit. Beigel-Coryell said, “On average, we’ve received about a $0.09 value per kilowatt hour of exported energy.” She also shared that CI is thinking about investing in energy storage for the array but is waiting for inflation and the battery market to cool down.
The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is starting various loan programs for renewable energy. Beigel-Coryell said the campus might be able to use these funds for future projects and upgrades to the solar array.
She explained that CI did not pay any installation or initial fees. Instead, they signed a 30-year, fixed payment agreement with Duke Energy in which they will pay six cents per every kilowatt they use from the solar panels. This agreement will save CI eight million dollars over the length of the deal; these savings might even increase as energy costs go up over the next 30 years.
Tours of the solar array, led by Beigel-Coryell, are available for some classes in the Environmental Science and Resource Management Department. The CI View attended one of these tours. “Can anyone guess how much energy this field produces?” she asked the class. “In the eight months since its operation, the solar panel fields have produced enough energy to power nearly 500,000 homes (for one day).” To put this into perspective this would be the equivalent of meeting the annual needs of electricity for 1,037 homes.
Beigel-Coryell said she would announce an official update on the solar array via CI News Center in the near future. She also shared plans for a new display on campus. “The second floor of the Broome Library will soon have a data dashboard showing live updates of the solar array’s operation.”
Next time you go down University Drive or use electricity on campus, think about the solar panels that are supporting CI! If you have additional questions about the solar array, feel free to reach out Beigel-Coryell at firstname.lastname@example.org or at her office in Ironwood Hall.