20-year agreement planned for University of Illinois’s second solar farm

The University of Illinois’s first solar farm was built on the university owned land via public-private partnership with Phoenix Solar Inc. of California. This firm has designed, built and operating the farm since 10 years.

The UI and Phoenix Solar have undergone an agreement according to which UI will purchase all the energy produced by Phoenix Solar, by paying the company about 1.5 million dollars a year or $15.5 million over 10 years.

It’s about $5.3 million more when compared to conventional source providing the same energy, but the idea was to shift the campus to renewable energy sources, said the UI officials. So down the lane university will buy the farm at market price and continue the operation with minimal cost, officials said.

The public-private partnership allowed the UI to finance the project for 10 years, rather than paying for it up front, officials said.

“The same arrangement will be used at present, 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 which is owned by UI Board of trustees basically created to buy energy efficiency. Trustees in September suggested approval allowing Prairieland to enter into 20-year agreement to buy clean energy, said White.

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 first one. They can spread the cost over 20 years,” she said, which means the UI’s annual pay will also be cheap.

“They don’t have to charge us as high a rate,” said Scott Willenbrock, who initiated the Solar Farm project.

Solar installations o have a life span, and the question was whether buying them after 10 or 20 years would be a good investment, added that they do degrade.

White said, “UI researchers have told her that solar panels have warrantee for 20 or 30 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 MW per hours a year in 2025, when UI buys it,” she said.

She also stated that “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.”

The UI will continue to maintain it just like any other generator on the campus, she said. And the array could be upgraded if better solar panels are developed in existing racks, she said.

Most solar farms are built with 25-year agreements, the industry standard, Willenbrock said. He also said that the expected life span for solar farm is “25-plus years”, nothing that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory places it at 30 years.