Gold Tree Solar Farm - Innovatively Advancing the Academic Mission
Cal Poly's 4.5 MW Gold Tree Solar Farm demonstrates how collaboration between Facilities and academics can transform campus buildings and infrastructure into more impactful academic assets. In addition to the $17M in utility savings the solar farm will realize over 20 years, it is financing construction of a new laboratory and supporting five innovative academic partner programs. Academic departments were engaged for input during RFP development to identify their programmatic needs and opportunities for integration into the solar project. The RFP included an “Academic Component” that bidders were required to respond to, weighted at 10% of the evaluation score.
Negotiations with the selected vendor – REC Solar - resulted in an Academic Services Agreement and creation of a new 25 kW Solar Engineering and Microgrid Laboratory at the Electrical Engineering building – financed by the PPA and scheduled for construction in summer of 2020. The lab will teach solar engineering design fundamentals and advanced energy storage and microgrid applications. Additional funding from REC over the next five years will support:
- Entrepreneurial student Clean Tech startups through non-profit Poly Canyon Ventures.
- Research on solar farm vegetation management practices using sheep grazing.
- Purchase of needed Electrical Engineering solar lab equipment and ongoing curriculum development.
- Campus wide sustainability curriculum infusion programs to increase the number of courses meeting AASHE STARS criteria.
- The Central Coast Climate Collaborative by creating a searchable database of climate-focused researchers across the five UC and CSU campuses of the region to connect them with adaptation and resilience project needs in their communities.
This new approach to project planning for academic innovation is already being applied to the next big sustainable infrastructure project at Cal Poly – creation of an oncampus recycled water facility to treat campus waste water for Ag irrigation, providing a wealth of new opportunities for curriculum development and applied research.
Cal Poly continues to make progress on its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Total greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 were 17% below 2015 levels, and 20% below 1990 levels despite campus doubling in building square footage and on-campus residency since that time. Energy conservation efforts reduced 2016–17 building energy intensity by 3 percent over the prior year—23 percent lower than 10 years ago.
Along with greater renewable energy generation across the state from solar and wind, increased rainfall in the northwest improved hydroelectric generation for PG&E in 2017, resulting in 79 percent of Cal Poly’s electricity purchase coming from carbon-free sources—up from 59 percent two years ago. With completion of the 4.5 MW Gold Tree Solar Farm in May of 2018, 25 percent of Cal Poly’s total electricity needs are now being met by on-site solar generation.
With completion of the 4.5 MW Gold Tree Solar Farm, Cal Poly has created the single largest solar array in the CSU system. The single-axis tracking array will generate 10,000,000 kWh per year—22 percent of the university’s total electricity needs. Funded by a power purchase agreement with REC Solar, a San Luis Obispo based company founded by Cal Poly graduates, the system will save the university some $17M over the next 20 years.
To bring the solar farm into the classroom and laboratory, a comprehensive array of instrumentation and a web-based dashboard will make weather and performance data available for curriculum, applied research, and student projects. Constructed on 18.5 acres of Cal Poly sheep pasture, the site will continue to be grazed by the Animal Science department’s sheep herd to research vegetation management practices for utility scale solar farms. The project will also create a hands-on solar engineering and microgrid laboratory at the Electrical Engineering building.
The 4.5MW Gold Tree Solar PV project, while significant, was a relatively straight forward PPA solicitation and design-build project. Undertaken prior to issuance of CSU's Phase IV solar MEA, this project started with CSU's Phase III RFP and SLPPA documents and updated them to today's requirements and the unique aspects of this particular project site and chosen utility tariff - the RES-BCT (Renewable Energy Self-Generation Bill Credit Transfer) program. The unique financial benefits of the RES-BCT tariff and record low $0.0605/kWh flat-rate 20 year PPA provided significant value - saving $17M over 20 years and creating new opportunities for academic collaboration and sustainability program investment.
By articulating a vision for the academic applications of such a system in the RFP, bidders were able to understand not only Cal Poly's long term aspirations for the project and the programs it could support, but were motivated to bring even more ideas to the table. Proposals were evaluated based on vendor qualifications, Net Present Value of savings, and response to the Academic Component of the RFP. Negotiations with the selected vendor resulted in contractual agreements - financed by the overall project and vendor's marketing budget - to support the best ideas under a separate Academic Services Agreement.
As soon as Cal Poly had committed to pursuing this project, it reached out to neighboring California Men's Colony and the City and County of San Luis Obispo to make them aware that they had similar opportunities through the RES-BCT program. The County and CMC are now proceeding with their own solar projects, and the City has committed to carbon neutrality by 2035 and voted to join the Monterey Bay Community Power CCA.
At Cal Poly's second annual campus wide Sustainability Charrette - part of 2017 Earth Week events - Lean Process Improvement and facilitated Liberating Structures activities were used to engage a broad cross section of faculty, staff, and student stakeholders to brainstorm ways to maximize the academic value of the solar farm and solar laboratory. Attendees identified potential stakeholders, developed strategic goals and discreet initiatives, and step-by-step actions to bring them to fruition.
Capital Planning and Development Center (CPDC) Staff, the CSU's go-to solar consultants, and expert faculty were engaged to plan this project and ensure success. Eleven potential sites were evaluated using Google Earth and PG&E's on-line PV Map which provides key information regarding capacity of their T&D systems to gain early understanding of interconnection challenges.
Once approved by campus administration, a CEQA study and initial interconnection review were performed. Academic departments were engaged for input during RFP development. Animal Science wanted to ensure access to the site for continued sheep grazing and potential research. Electrical Engineering faculty provided a wish list including extensive performance instrumentation, metering and telemetry; a full meteorological station and hemispherical sky camera to monitor cloud cover; and a web portal to facilitate access to high-frequency interval data. These and other requirements were written into the RFP - some required and some optional. The winning proposal provided all - cost effectively financed by the PPA.
A negotiated Academic Services Agreement resulted in creation of a new 25 kW Solar Engineering and Microgrid Laboratory at the Electrical Engineering building, scheduled for construction summer 2020. The lab will be used to teach solar engineering design fundamentals as well as advanced energy storage and microgrid applications.
Construction of Gold Tree Solar Farm was completed in January of 2018 and after final approval by PG&E, was energized in May 2018. The system is performing reliably and is on track to produce nearly 11,000,000 kWh of electricity annually - approximately 25% of Cal Poly's total needs.
Primarily financed by the Gold Tree solar PPA, the design for the Solar Engineering and Microgrid Laboratory is complete, has an approved building permit and Fire Marshal sign-off, and is scheduled for construction over summer of 2020. Academic collaboration agreements have been executed with five partner programs in various stages of implementation.
Cal Poly's 4.5 MW, single-axis tracking Gold Tree Solar Farm demonstrates how collaboration between Facilities and academics can transform campus buildings and infrastructure into more impactful academic assets. Undertaken prior to issuance of CSU's Phase IV solar MEA, this project started with CSU's Phase III RFP and SLPPA documents and updated them to today's requirements and the unique aspects of the project site and chosen utility tariff - the RES-BCT (Renewable Energy Self-Generation Bill Credit Transfer) program.
RES-BCT allows local governments and universities on bundled service to build renewable energy generation systems up to 5 MW in size, and connect them directly to the Utility’s transmission or distribution infrastructure. This avoids the challenges inherent in managing non-export for behind the meter solar projects at sites that do not qualify for Net Energy Metering, or where there is not enough viable roof area or open space to build a system of that size. In addition, the RES-BCT tariff requires the utility to compensate the benefitting customer account via a credit on their utility bill, at the generation value of the customer-chosen tariff for the renewable energy system - in this case, PG&E’s A6 rate which works out to an average of about $0.135/kWh.
On the back end, a Power Purchase Agreement is executed between the customer and solar developer at a price that covers the developers cost of capital, O&M, overhead, and profit – for this project a CSU record low $0.0605/kWh flat rate for 20 years. The difference between the RES-BCT generation value and PPA price is what creates savings. While producing approximately 25% of Cal Poly’s electrical needs on-site from a carbon free source, the solar farm will generate $17M in savings over the 20 year PPA and is creating new opportunities for academic collaboration and sustainability program investment.
Academic departments were engaged for input during RFP development to identify their programmatic needs and opportunities for integration into the solar project. By articulating a vision for the academic applications of such a system in the RFP, bidders were able to understand not only Cal Poly's long term aspirations for the project and the programs it could support, but were motivated to bring even more ideas to the table. Proposals were evaluated based on vendor qualifications and project experience, and their response to the Academic Component of the RFP – weighted at 10% of the evaluation score. The top five qualified firms then had their price proposals opened and evaluated, with award based on Net Present Value of savings.
Negotiations with the selected vendor – REC Solar - resulted in a contractual Academic Services Agreement that provided $150K to construct a hands-on 25 kW Solar Engineering and Microgrid Laboratory at the EE building, and annual funding for five years to and support innovative partner programs:
- $10K per year for up to five years to support student-founded non-profit Poly Canyon Ventures, providing seed funds to student entrepreneurs seeking to commercialize Clean Tech business ideas, in return for a small equity share in the company should it succeed, for reinvestment into new student start-ups - https://www.polycanyonventures.org/
- $5K per year to support Animal Science Department research on solar farm vegetation management via sheep grazing
- $5K per year to purchase needed EE Solar Lab equipment and support further curriculum development
- $5K per year to support the Cal Poly Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology’s “Teaching Sustainability Across the Curriculum” programs to increase the number of courses meeting AASHE STARS criteria and expand SusCat - Cal Poly's sustainability course catalog - https://ctlt.calpoly.edu/sustainability-curriculum
- $5K per year to hire a grad student to support the Central Coast Climate Collaborative and create a searchable database of climate-focused researchers across the five UC and CSU campuses of the region to connect them with adaptation and resilience project needs in their communities - https://www.centralcoastclimate.org/
Since completion, the solar farm has been toured by hundreds of students in classes from many disciplines, as well as city and county officials working on their own renewable energy project plans. Workshops have been held to train faculty and students how to access and use the Green Power Monitor data portal:
https://web3.greenpowermonitor.com/ User:firstname.lastname@example.org Password:C4lPOlyPV
This new approach to project planning for academic innovation is already being applied to the next big sustainable infrastructure project at Cal Poly – creation of an on-campus recycled water facility to treat campus waste water for Ag irrigation, providing a wealth of new opportunities for curriculum development and applied research.
The Gold Tree Solar Farm is producing approximately 11,000,000 kWh per year - providing nearly 25% of Cal Poly's total electricity needs and offsetting nearly 1,500 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions based on PG&E's published 2017 emission factor. The project will produce nearly $1M in utility savings in the first year, and some $17M over the 20 year PPA at a fixed price of $0.0605/kWh. The savings from the project will provide $150K in one-time funds to create a new Solar Engineering and Microgrid laboratory, and $30K per year for five years to support partner academic programs. Along with progress from an ongoing curriculum infusion initiative by the Academic Senate Sustainability Committee and the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, as well as adoption of socially and environmentally responsible investment criteria by Cal Poly's Foundation Board, the renewable energy production from the Gold Tree Solar Farm helped achieve enough points to elevate Cal Poly's AASHE STARS rating from Silver to Gold after a full year of energy production.
The RES-BCT program still has about 20 MW capacity remaining in PG&E territory, and 50 MW capacity remaining in SCE territory. The program is near the cap in SDG&E territory. Bundled service customers in PG&E and SCE should consider the risk/reward of an RES-BCT project which would allow them to build up to 5 MW of renewable generation on owned or leased land and receive the financial credit on their chosen benefitting account. While RES-BCT projects are not for the faint at heart and will require cautious financial analysis, it would be near impossible for most campuses to build 5 MW of generation more cost effectively, if at all. This new approach to planning infrastructure projects is already being applied to the next big sustainable infrastructure project at Cal Poly, which has just completed a yearlong feasibility study. The project will construct an on-campus recycled water facility capable of converting nearly all of Cal Poly's agriculture operations from irrigation with surface water to recycled water - greatly extending Cal Poly's current single source of water supply from Whale Rock Reservoir and providing numerous learn-by-doing opportunities for multiple academic programs.