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Photovoltaics

Solar photovoltaics (PV) is a mature, commercially available technology for producing renewable electricity. PV modules can be connected together to meet power requirements for small- and medium-sized applications.

The following links go to sections that describe how PV may fit into climate action plans at your research campus.

Campus PV installations are growing rapidly. You can view a list of campus PV installations at U.S. colleges and universities published online by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

A PV system requires periodic maintenance, but upkeep averages two to four hours per year, making PV one of the more easily operated and maintained power-generating technologies. PV installations can be located almost anywhere, but are typically placed on individual buildings or in larger arrays.

Campus Solar Energy Options

A PV system requires periodic maintenance, but upkeep averages two to four hours per year, making PV one of the more easily operated and maintained power-generating technologies. PV installations can be located almost anywhere, but are typically placed on individual buildings or in larger arrays.

  • Distributed installations on individual buildings: PV systems are typically installed on rooftops. In the future, PV cells may be incorporated into walls, windows, and roofs.

    Photo of an array of PV modules mounted horizontally (facing upward) on the roof of a building.

    This PV array provides power to the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) Gateway Visitors Center in Kona, Hawaii.
    Credit: NELHA Gateway

  • Central solar arrays: Larger systems located in fields or open space can supply electricity directly to the campus power grid.

    Photo of a PV array that covers a parking lot during construction with various workers and vehicles off to the side; there is a green forest in the background.

    This PV array at Stockton College provides covering for the parking lot.

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Considerations for Campus PV Installations

Is  PV right for your campus?
  • Does the area have a good solar energy resource?
  • Do the buildings have flat or south-facing rooftops?
  • Is open land available?
  • Do you want to demonstrate a commitment to renewable energy?
  • Are incentives and rebates available?
  • Is financing available?

Research campuses should consider the following before undertaking a solar energy assessment or PV installation.

Solar Energy Resources

Solar energy production varies significantly from one site to another. An expert should always be consulted to perform a resource assessment before a PV project is undertaken.

For feasibility and scoping studies, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) publishes low- and high-resolution solar energy resource maps of the United States. These maps connect with a geographical information system that enables you to zoom in on specific locations.

Siting

PV arrays are typically installed on flat or south-facing building rooftops. Systems are often integrated into buildings or atop structures such as parking garages, requiring little to no additional land use. However, systems can be erected on open land adjacent to buildings. You can use the PVWatts Calculator to estimate electricity output from a PV installation.

Visible Commitment to Sustainability

PV panels are iconic and express an ongoing commitment to sustainable renewable energy. Many systems are installed in ways that are not apparent, but they can be positioned as visible reminders of your research campus's commitment to climate neutrality.

Using local labor to install PV systems also creates green jobs and stimulates the economy. Trade unions across the country train their members on PV technologies. Supporting these groups further showcases a commitment to sustainability.

Incentives and Rebates

Unit costs for PV systems are high, but incentives are available to lower costs and yield competitive energy rates. Continual technology improvements improve conversion efficiencies and lower manufacturing costs.

Many states, municipalities, and serving utility companies offer incentives and rebates for PV and other renewable energy projects. The programs can dramatically reduce capital costs associated with project development. Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency to see whether your state provides incentives or tax credits for renewable energy installations.

Financing

Although the "fuel" is free, solar power installations require a large capital commitment, so financing can be a critical factor in determining the feasibility of a particular project. Because solar energy is so capital intensive, its costs are predictable (once a site is chosen and financing arranged). You can compare energy cost and performance data for solar energy and other renewable energy technologies; NREL compiles these data from a variety of sources and publishes them online.

Options usually include self-financing, issuing bonds, or obtaining third-party financing from the private sector. You can read about these and other financing options in a technical report published by NREL titled, Innovations in Wind and Solar PV Financing.

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Leading Example: Oberlin College PV Project

Photo of the entrance of a two-story building at Oberlin College with PV modules on its roof.

The PV array on the roof of the Lewis Center at Oberlin College consists of 690 PV modules made of crystalline silicon solar cells. The array is integrated into the structure so the modules form the roof of the building.
Credit: Ed Hancock

The Lewis Center at Oberlin College in northern Ohio showcases building-integrated PV. The design goal was to greatly reduce or eliminate the building's electricity demand through on-site renewable energy generation. The campus initially installed one PV array, but realized the system did not satisfy annual electricity consumption. A second array was then installed in the parking lot.

Multiyear performance data of the solar array is available through a real-time measurement application. DOE's Buildings Database includes a detailed case study about the Lewis Center.

You can read more about other research campus PV projects. Some of these documents are available as Adobe PDFs.

  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory: NREL produced a fact sheet titled, "Mesa Top Photovoltaic Array". The NREL campus includes a five-acre, 750-kilowatt solar PV array financed through a power purchase agreement.

  • Arizona State University: The university installed a 30-kilowatt PV array, and is entering a power purchase agreement to add several megawatts on rooftops across campus.

  • Butte College: This California college first installed PV in 2006 and now obtains almost 50% of its electricity from solar energy.

  • University of Wisconsin: The university published a fact sheet titled, "Learning From the Sun: UW-Green Bay Goes Solar". The Mary Ann Cofrin Hall in Green Bay installed a building-integrated PV system that generates approximately 27,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.

  • California State University Northridge: The university published the project summary of an extensive PV array installation within a paved campus parking area.

  • Rutgers University: In 2009 Rutgers University began operation of a 7-acre 1.4 MW solar facility that provides approximately 11% of the campus electrical demand.

  • Atlantic Cape Community College: The New Jersey campus announced plans to install a 2.3 MW solar project on this east coast campus.

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Technology Basics

The following resources explain the fundamentals of solar energy technologies, including PV:

  • Solar Energy Basics: NREL publishes this descriptive overview of solar energy technologies and best practices organized by technology type.

  • DOE Solar Energy Technologies: This DOE program focuses on developing cost-effective solar energy technologies with the greatest potential for adoption and international market transformation.

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