As a project developer at Borrego Solar, I’ve had the opportunity to work on several projects at colleges and universities, as well as learn from my colleagues who have also developed such projects. Through the nearly 40 MW we have installed in the education space, we’ve come to know the opportunities and challenges intimately. Here, I’ve boiled down the most important elements of developing a solar PV system at higher education institutions in the U.S., with a slight focus on the California market.
Why higher education?
Before jumping into the development details, it is important to discuss why the higher education segment offers a unique solar opportunity. There are three factors that come together: large amounts of on-site energy usage, sustainability objectives and the importance of reducing operational expenses.
As commercial solar developers well know, project economics break down at smaller system sizes. Higher education facilities typically have enough on-site load and space to support a sufficiently large system. In addition, most colleges and universities have a set of sustainability goals. For example, they might be signatories of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment or have other state-mandated carbon offset goals. In most cases, such goals cannot be reached without on-site renewable generation. The last point about reducing operational costs seems obvious, but it has a special meaning in the higher education world. Every penny spent on operational costs is a penny that can’t be used to support the objective of the institution – education. Therefore, savings in this area, even if the payback is longer, are valuable to both the institution and the community.
Identifying the ideal location
The location of the solar project on campus is an important consideration. Although it is possible to put solar in many spots, there is a select group of scenarios that make the most sense.
In our experience, solar carports or ground mounts are the most advantageous and cost-effective for on-campus projects. That is because campuses tend to have large parking lots and, in some cases, vast open land (rural settings). We can achieve a large system size in one concentrated location.
Facility rooftops are also possible sites, but that depends on the state of the rooftops and whether there is enough open space. In my experience, it can be more challenging to identify a rooftop that is large enough and/or able to support the weight of a system. Of course, each campus setting is unique and ultimately must be evaluated with all of these factors in mind.
The American Disabilities Act (ADA) is a non-trivial consideration for on-campus solar carport systems. Often, the ADA spots are located right up against the building and can’t be covered due to building setback issues and/or shading. This will necessitate adding ADA spots under the new shaded areas created by the solar project. This can trigger access pathway issues and overall ADA compliance issues with regard to the size of the spots and the orientation of the striping, even outside of the solar array. The cost of such upgrades can be significant. It is important for a developer to keep this in mind and look for opportunities to avoid ADA upgrades.
Interconnecting the system
Most colleges and universities operate on a 4.16 kV loop system or some other internal electrical infrastructure. What this means is that the meter may be located at one end of campus and would not be an ideal location for a direct interconnection due to the distance from the system. Instead, we look for opportunities to tie into one of the sub-meters throughout campus. This piece can be challenging to figure out during the development stage. Ideally, the institution has up-to-date single-lines and a solid knowledge of the electrical infrastructure. We recommend asking for this information early on in the development process. It is also a good idea to request a site walk with the campus electrical engineer. Usually, there is someone at the site who is knowledgeable about the on-campus electrical infrastructure.
A majority of college and university projects are solar carport builds. During the development phase, this means crafting a schedule that minimizes disruptions while getting the project to the finish line as quickly as possible. We often build such systems during the summer months or employ a phased approach, during which we block out one section of parking at a time and roll throughout the parking lot.
In addition to phasing, it is important to coordinate regarding class schedules. We recommend educating the client on the parts of the work that are the most noisy and disruptive and then confirming the hours of work and how best to minimize the impact on the campus. The schedule can be a surprisingly continuous subject if all stakeholders haven’t been consulted.
An often overlooked but key ingredient for success is the degree to which the various stakeholders support the project. Universities and colleges have numerous departments, a board of directors, students and other key actors. Each of the relevant stakeholders should be on board with the project and understand the timeline, financial impact and benefits.
We have seen scenarios in which not all of the stakeholders were aware or supportive of the proposed project, which can lead to delays. Ideally, all parties will have a voice throughout the development phase. For example, on a recent community college project, we observed the best scenario when the school board, staff and administration all worked together to produce the request for proposals (RFP). This ensured the project moved forward smoothly. Each party understood its role and had approved the project previously.
Conversely, we worked on another project where the board wasn’t consulted for approval until the end of the RFP process. In this case, the board decided to pass on the project. We recommend asking questions early on about which stakeholders have been involved. If the board has never even heard about the project and the school is issuing an RFP, then that could pose challenges later on.
Environmental compliance is an important factor in California, where we’ve developed a number of higher education solar projects. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) applies to all public-sector projects in the state (and private-sector projects with conditional approvals/permitting). This act requires that developers take steps to mitigate environmental impacts, especially as they pertain to endangered species.
Solar carport and rooftop systems at existing sites are exempt from CEQA review. Ground mounts, on the other hand, typically do trigger CEQA review. This can add a few months or even potentially years to the project timeline. We recommend assessing CEQA impacts during the project development phase to see what might come up and if there is anything that can be done with the design to avoid these impacts. For example, if a part of the site has oak trees, we may want to avoid that area to minimize the CEQA impact. All campuses must comply with CEQA requirements, so it is really about understanding which projects trigger CEQA and what might be required per the authority having jurisdiction and project site. When in doubt, engage a CEQA consultant that can advise regarding the potential requirements.
Division of the State Architect (DSA)
Public-sector college and university projects in California must comply with DSA review and processes. The DSA has some nuances that can have significant schedule impacts. For example, if you work with a provider that has a DSA-pre-approved design, this is then eligible for an over-the-counter design review. This will save several months in the project schedule. For ground mounts, there is a special classification for “behind the fence” projects. These projects must comply with DSA guidelines but do not have to be submitted to the DSA for review. The college or university, in these instances, is effectively self-permitting. This will also cut several months out of the project timeline.
More information is better
During the development phase, the more information the university or college can provide, the better. This includes details on existing utility lines, easements, geotechnical information, and anything else related to the project site. Although this information is often obtained during the design phase, these details up front can mitigate the amount of rework and ensure the project doesn’t hit a critical flaw.
Design-bid-build vs. design-build
The vast majority of on-site solar projects are constructed via a design-build approach. It is important to educate your college or university client on this subject prior to an RFP solicitation. A design-build approach is advantageous for a university or college, as this will lead to a lower cost per watt and the institution will get the value adds that come with a turnkey project – e.g., production guarantee and warranties. In general, it is challenging for a solar provider to use a pre-existing design and produce a competitive and compelling project. The client will be disappointed when going down this route, even if that is the way the institution approached most other construction projects on campus. For all parties, some education at the beginning of the development process can save time later on.
As you can see, there are a number of development considerations to take into account for on-site college and university solar projects. From scheduling to engaging stakeholders, several factors make higher education projects unique. The key to success is understanding those unique hurdles and taking steps to mitigate these challenges early on.
Audrey Copeland is a California-based project developer at Borrego Solar.