The UI’s first solar farm was built on university-owned land through a public-private partnership with Phoenix Solar Inc. of California. The firm designed, built and is operating the farm for the first 10 years.
The UI is buying all of the energy produced from Phoenix Solar through a power-purchase agreement, paying the company about $1.5 million a year or a total of about $15.5 million over 10 years.
That’s about $5.3 million more than it would cost to provide the same energy from conventional sources, but the idea was to move the campus toward renewable energy sources, UI officials said. After 10 years, the university will buy the farm at fair market value and continue to operate it at minimal cost, officials said.
The public-private partnership allowed the UI to finance the project over 10 years, rather than paying for it up front, officials said.
The same arrangement will be used this time, although the UI wants a 20-year agreement to spread the cost out over a longer period, said Morgan White, director of sustainability for UI Facilities and Services.
The agreement will also be made through Prairieland Energy Inc., a corporation wholly owned by the UI Board of Trustees that was created to buy energy efficiently. Trustees in September approved an item allowing Prairieland to enter into a 20-year agreement to buy clean energy, White said.
The longer agreements “really do cut down the cost, especially if we want them to design, build, operate and maintain the entire solar farm, like the first one. They can spread the cost over 20 years,” she said, which means the UI’s annual payments are also cheaper.
“They don’t have to charge us as high a rate,” said Scott Willenbrock, who helped initiate the solar farm project.
Solar installations have a certain life span, and some have questioned whether buying them after 10 or 20 years is a good investment, given that they degrade.
White said UI researchers have told her that solar panels are warrantied for 20 or 25 years, but that doesn’t mean they stop working; they simply get less efficient.
UI students are tracking the rate of degradation for the existing solar farm, but it’s still projected to be producing about 7,000 megawatt hours a year in 2025 when the UI buys it, she said.
“It’s our vision that once we own the site, we would continue to get the energy out of it long past the official warranty period,” White said.
The UI will continue to maintain it just like any other generator on campus, she said. And the array could be upgraded if better solar panels are developed in the future, using the existing racks, she said.
Most solar farms are built with 25-year agreements, the industry standard, Willenbrock said. He said the expected life span for solar farms is “25-plus years,” noting that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory places it at 30 years.