Furman University completes $1.7M solar farm

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Photo by Suresh Muthukrishnan.

Furman University is one step closer to reducing its carbon footprint.

On Tuesday, campus officials plan to connect more than 2,000 photovoltaic solar panels to the electrical grid that should reduce the university’s electricity expenditures by up to 5 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by at least 3 percent, according to Jeff Redderson, Furman’s associate vice president for facility and campus services.

The 743-kW solar farm, which is located on about 6 acres near the main campus entrance along Poinsett Highway, is the largest solar installation on a college campus in South Carolina. 

“Furman takes its environmental responsibilities seriously, and we’re proud to be a leader in our sustainability programs and renewable energy systems,” said Furman University President Elizabeth Davis. “In addition to increasing the university’s solar power production and reducing our energy costs, the new solar facility will serve as a laboratory for Furman students pursuing careers in sustainability.  We are constantly working to become a more sustainable campus, and this project is another example of our commitment to that goal.” 

Furman decided to construct the solar farm, because South Carolina increased on-site solar production limits to 1-mW when it passed the Distributed Energy Resource Program, Act 236, in 2014. The university was previously limited to producing a maximum of 100-kW of solar power, according to Redderson. 

Last year, Furman’s Board of Trustees approved $1.7 million for the project and hired Power Secure Solar, a North Carolina-based energy services company, to oversee the installation process. The company finished that process last month, according to Elcainey Baker, the university’s construction manager

Duke Energy, which conducted engineering studies last year to support the solar farm’s connection to the electrical grid, plans to issue a $997,000 rebate to the university that should defray installation costs, according to company spokesperson Ryan Mosier. The North Carolina-based power company offers $1 per watt of installed generating capacity direct current to businesses producing more than 20 kilowatts and less than 1,000 kilowatts through solar installations.

The solar farm, which is the first in the area to tie directly into an electrical transmission line, has also been set up for net metering. That means any excess power it generates can be sold back to Duke Energy.

Furman expects an eight-year return on investment, according to Redderson. 

Going for the green

The solar farm is part of a larger effort to create a carbon neutral campus by 2026, Furman’s bicentennial.

In 2007, the university signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, an effort among colleges and universities to neutralize their greenhouse gas emissions and prepare students through research and education to tackle sustainability issues.

Furman has since constructed several on-campus solar projects, according to Redderson. The campus currently gets a maximum of about 92-kW from solar panels located on the roof of its Lay Physical Activities Center, 30-kW from solar panels at the Shi Center for Sustainability, and 12-kW from solar panels next to the Townes Science Center.

The university has already positioned itself for more solar installations, according to Baker. In 2013, for instance, the university replaced and redesigned the roof on Timmons Arena to incorporate solar panels. It also had additional land near the newly constructed solar farm that can hold additional solar panels.

Furman’s construction manager Elcainey Baker oversaw the installation of about 3,000 solar panels on six acres near the main campus entrance along Poinsett Highway. Photo by Andrew Moore.

 

However, the state would need to once again raise the cap on allowable on-site solar generation for Furman to add more solar projects, according to Redderson. The university currently uses about 5,500-kW of electricity at its peak during the summer months and about 4,000-kW during the winter.

For now, the university is considering other options to reduce its carbon footprint. That includes off-site solar projects that could off-set the university’s electric needs, according to Redderson. 

“To be carbon-neutral by 2026 is going to be a really big push,” said Laura Bain, Furman’s associate director of sustainability assessment. “The biggest thing we’re going to have to do to get to carbon neutrality is to come up with some sort of purchase agreement with Duke Energy to be able to purchase some power offsets.”

Since 2007, Furman has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent through operation efficiency, heating and cooling systems, and solar generation, according to Redderson. The university now plans to encourage students and faculty to turn off lights, ride bikes instead of driving, and recycle.

“As one person you can certainly do something, but as a campus we can really make an impact,” Bain said.

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