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One-third of Grinnell College power to come from solar energy with new solar array

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One-third of Grinnell College power to come from solar energy with new solar array

May 27, 2024 | 9:00 am ET
By Brooklyn Draisey
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One-third of Grinnell College power to come from solar energy with new solar array
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One-third of Grinnell College's energy needs will come from solar power with the completion of a new solar array. (Photo courtesy of Grinnell College)

Grinnell College has made a “decisive step” forward in the direction of operating without emissions with the completion of a 9,000-panel solar array.

One-third of Grinnell College’s campus is now running on renewable energy with the array, the largest private solar installation in the state, Grinnell College President Anne Harris said. As Grinnell College reaches this milestone in its goal of hitting net-zero emissions by 2040, a community-wide solar project could have more than half of the university’s power come from renewable sources.

“This is a prime example of how knowledge and education moved through the institution out into the world at Grinnell,” Harris said.

A third-party developer, Sunlight General Capital LLC, owns the array, and Grinnell College has purchased all of the energy generated from it for the next 20 years, with the possibility of a 10-year extension.

The array, which Grinnell College environmental and safety manager Chris Bair said has been in operation for around one month, provides four megawatts of power that flows to almost every building on campus. There are six other smaller solar power stations utilized by the university, he said, which provide energy to buildings off of the main meter like the facilities building and environmental education center.

Each of the panels is double-sided, Bair said, allowing them to gather energy from reflected light like that off snow, and are able to follow the path of the sun from east to west to more efficiently absorb power.

Beyond the daily power the solar array provides, a battery connected to the system can store a certain amount of energy for when it’s needed. Bair said this will be most useful when the university’s energy usage is at its highest, like on a hot day in August with all of the air conditioning units on campus running constantly. The battery will help curb the peak, at least a little bit, helping save some money on the energy bill.

“When we know we’re in a hot day when we’re going to generate our likely peak for the month, we’ll start taking electricity from the battery and shaving that peak,” Bair said.

Renewable energy years in the making

Before Grinnell College began utilizing solar energy to power a large portion of its operations, Harris said the college board of trustees created the Fossil Fuels and Climate Impact Task Force in 2017 to explore how the university could fight climate change after students brought up concerns about fossil fuels.

Grinnell College made a sustainability plan in 2018 with the goal of having net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, and through collaboration with students, campus environmental organizations, faculty and staff, including Bair, the university landed on solar power as the right fit to become more sustainable moving forward.

The array has been working smoothly so far, Bair said, with some tweaking still going on to fix small problems. It had been nearly complete mechanically for around a year, but further review and approvals from Alliant Energy were needed before the college could plug in. Bair got used to telling people “any day now,” with nothing coming of it.

“I drive by that site four times a day and those panels have been out for a long long time,” Bair said. “I’ve just been staring at them, and it was really frustrating, and now that it’s finally on it’s a big, probably more relief than anything.”

Another solar array project spearheaded by Alliant Energy and community partners will provide the university with an additional two megawatts of solar energy, Bair said, ensuring more than half of campus power will come from solar once it is up and running.

Array offers education opportunities

More than just a source of power, Harris said the solar array can also be a source of education and inspiration for Grinnell students. Those involved in the Grinnell College Student Environmental Committee, other organizations and certain classes have been a part of this process and the college’s overall efforts to become more sustainable, and future students will be able to learn about both the how’s and why’s of using solar energy.

Students will be able to take this knowledge elsewhere after graduation, Harris said, hopefully showing other communities in Iowa and beyond solutions for the future.

Grinnell College is one of many institutions with sustainability plans and practices, Harris said, and all universities should be thinking about solutions like these because they can make a tangible impact on more than just the campus itself, but the community that houses it.

“We are employers, we are neighbors, we are co-constituents of all these different communities,” Harris said. “And I do think that energy consciousness is a very palpable and real way that all colleges and universities can contribute to the … environmental well-being of the communities that they call home.”