Largest rooftop solar array in SUNY system helping UAlbany go green (with 5 photos)

A drone image shot in February by the New York Power Authority shows the new solar panels on the roofs of buildings in the Academic Podium on the University at Albany campus.

A drone image shot in February by the New York Power Authority shows the new solar panels on the roofs of buildings in the Academic Podium on the University at Albany campus.

ALBANY The old saw about a journey of a thousand miles starting with a single step translates to electrons and megawatts, as well.

The University at Albany this past week showed off the largest rooftop photovoltaic array in the 64-campus SUNY system, 4,783 silent and mostly unseen generators that will create a continuous 1.87 megawatts of direct current at peak conditions.

The new array is also one more tiny step toward the state’s goal of making its electric grid carbon-free within the next 18 years, a prospect made all the more challenging by simultaneous state initiatives that are expected to quadruple New York’s need for electricity.

“Together as a collective we’re contributing to a more sustainable environment for generations to come,” UAlbany President Havidan Rodriguez said at the event.

UAlbany and the New York Power Authority teamed up for this project, which went live in January and was celebrated Wednesday with a walk-through and show-and-tell.

“When you talk about it it’s one thing, but when you come up here, no matter where your eye sees you see panels and that’s pretty impressive,” said the university’s energy officer, Indu, who has only one name.

The panels cover roughly 105,000 square feet of rooftop on the Life Science Research Building and seven buildings on the Academic Podium. They lay nearly flat, which is not the optimal angle for power generation but maintains the necessary load-bearing capacity for wind and snow.

[ngg src=”galleries” ids=”57″ display=”basic_imagebrowser”]The wind was blowing hard above the famously gusty Uptown Campus on Wednesday, but nothing near the 110 mph the array’s anchoring system is rated for. 

The cost of installation was borne by project developer Capitol Hill Solar. The current owner of the array, Greenbacker Energy Development Company, sells the electricity to the university at a fixed rate that has so far been lower than the varying rates National Grid would have charged for the same amount of electricity.

Conversion of direct current to alternating current reduces the yield 20%, down to a maximum of 1.5 megawatts. 

Factoring in cloudy days, the array will generate about 50% of its peak potential, or 2.3 million kilowatt hours over the course of a year, said Indu. 

In all, it is expected to provide only about 2% of the present-day power needs of the uptown campus.

Its benefit goes beyond electricity, though: It helps to set the environmentally conscious tone the university wants to strike, and to reach the goals in its Energy Master Plan.

Today’s student body grew up in an era when solar panels were proliferating in residential neighborhoods. Indu said they don’t need to be sold on the idea of solar energy on campus.

“This is almost baseline for them — they expect us to do it,” she said. 

When she takes class groups up to the roof, the array serves as a reminder to use less electricity.

“The message I tell them is, ‘Look at all the solar panels — it does less than 3% of our campus electricity. So that means energy efficiency is key.'”

Brad Hershenson, who holds a UAlbany undergraduate degree and is now a graduate student there, said Wednesday’s debut was a proud day for the university.

“This is important, this is the largest array across the SUNY system,” he said. 

(It dwarfs the 49.8- and 27-kilowatt rooftop systems installed elsewhere at UAlbany in 2011 and 2017, respectively.)

Hershenson said the student body is receptive to the value of the new array.

“I’ve been in the green scene for the last five or six years on campus,” he said. “The last two, with the pandemic, people have … been more aware of their carbon footprint.”

Hershenson attributes this to students looking to save money while remaining environmentally conscious, with steps like saving electricity, carpooling, reducing water use and shopping for locally produced food.

“It really does add up financially,” said Hershenson, who is a graduate assistant in the university Office of Sustainability.

With the large new solar array in place, the next green project on student activists’ minds might involve food scraps, he said.

“I hear a lot from students about composting.”

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