GVSU’s Solar Garden and a Look to the Future

Over 11,200 solar panels began soaking up sun this past spring on Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) main campus. GVSU reached an agreement in October of 2015 with Consumers Energy to become a part of their Community Solar Garden program, Michigan’s largest community solar project to date. June 10, 2016 marked the completion and commencement of GVSU’s Solar Garden.

GVSU is simply the host for the solar array. “It is entirely theirs, we just lease them the land,” said Yumiko Jakobcic, the Office of Sustainability Practices’ Campus Sustainability Manager. “[Consumers] took care of the design, construction, maintenance, and the cost.”

The university has a 25-year lease agreement with Consumers Energy for 17 acres of land, located just off 48th Avenue in Allendale. The three-megawatt garden will generate enough electricity to power approximately 600 homes, the majority of which will go to the grid and provide power for hundreds throughout the area. GVSU has subscribed to 500 kilowatts (equivalent to approximately 80 homes) and receives a monthly credit on their bill with Consumers in return for leasing the land.

Consumers reached out to Terry Pahl, the facilities engineer at GVSU, about the Solar Garden project nearly two years ago. “We had no other plans for that land anytime soon and it just seemed to make sense,” Pahl said.

It also made sense for Consumers to build on a college campus. When they were granted the ability to build these community solar gardens by the Michigan Public Service Commission, it was mandated that an educational aspect be included in the project. “With building the Solar Garden, they wanted to provide educational opportunities with the school and the community,” Jakobcic said.

Consumers granted GVSU $55,000 up front that was used by a team of engineering students to build two portable solar panel arrays that have been displayed at Artprize and around campus. These arrays are a tangible entity that people can see and touch and plug their phone into and understand where their energy is coming from. Consumers will also pay the university $20,000 per year for the next six years to further develop a curriculum around solar and other forms of renewable energy.

It is not only GVSU students who have the opportunity to benefit and learn from the Solar Garden, but the community at large. There have been several middle school classes that have taken tours of the garden, and have had education regarding renewable energy further intertwined into their curriculum.

Beyond the classroom, emergency first responders have also had tours and training in the solar garden. “The first responder training was very important to Consumers,” Pahl said. “You can cut the power to the house, but those solar panels will still be generating power.” Solar arrays on houses are a relatively new concept, and firemen need to know how to deal them. They must know the steps to be taken when someone’s home is burning with a solar roof, and with the garden they are able to learn these steps and obtain the necessary training.

The Solar Garden is just one step in the right direction that GVSU is taking toward sustainable practices. Despite being the university with the second-lowest state funding per student in Michigan, receiving only 56 percent of the state average per student, GVSU has done wonders in the world of sustainability.

“Our square footage and student body have been increasing,” Pahl said, “but our energy consumption has gone down.”

Over the past fifteen years, GVSU has reduced its electrical consumption by 26.5 percent, natural gas consumption by 27.5 percent, and water/sewer by 42.7 percent on a square foot basis. All told, Pahl estimates that the university has saved $15 million on utilities since the early 2000’s. They have been knocking out the low hanging fruit for years – such as the installation of over 700 LED light bulbs across campus, but now GVSU has to start thinking outside the box toward more big picture ideas.

The Solar Garden project was the biggest step the university had taken towards renewable energy at the time, but there are bright plans in place for the future. Starting in 2018, GVSU will begin receiving 15 percent of its open market energy consumption from wind power. The Solar Garden coupled with the new wind farm initiative will provide GVSU with 11 percent of their total energy consumption coming from renewable sources.

“We believe in diversification,” Pahl said. “We will not put our eggs in one basket by any means.”

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