Kent State plans to begin construction before the end of this year on a new solar panel installment across from the East Campus parking lot. The new installment, expected to be online by August 2022, will produce 6% of the energy for the main campus and will be the ninth installment across all Kent campuses.
The first of Kent State’s solar panel arrays was installed in 2012 at the Field House—it reduces carbon dioxide emissions by about 390 tons annually. That was followed by installations on every regional campus, with all going online in 2021. Bob Misbrener, project manager on all campus solar installations and self-described one-stop person for all things solar on Kent’s campuses, was with Kent State during the Field House.
Money to pay for the installations came from both governmental and private entities eliminating the capital expense fo rKent State upfront; all of the purchases went through a Power Purchase Agreement or PPA. These government entities are able to take advantage of federal tax credits associated with installing renewable energy sources while the university cannot. Contractors propose their plans to the university and once they are approved and selected, the company begins construction, and the university pays for any solar energy that is purchased and produced.
“We have relatively little cost at all. We advertise the project; those initial costs are around $5,000 for all that stuff. But [contractors] bear the cost of the entire installation. They have investment firms that invest in it, because they know that we are obligated contractually to purchase that electricity.”
The projects are often available for the university to purchase seven or eight years after installation, and most of the time, the university takes advantage of that option. The nearly acre-wide array on the roof of the Field House was purchased in January 2020 and will pay for itself in about 6.5 years.
None of the currently installed projects use battery storage; all of the energy produced is channeled back into the building and is used there. Misbrener said the storage aspect of energy conversion has not yet been proven to be worth the cost. What is not used by the building goes straight back into the grid. If the building is using more power than is generated by the array, what happens?
“As soon as the electricity is produced, it goes through the wires into the building at the building’s main electrical connection and is used by the building. If it’s not used by the building, like, for instance, on a weekend at the Field House when there is not much going on – it’s a beautiful sunny weekend—what is not used goes back into the grid. The utility companies, be it American Electric Power down south, or First Energy here in our area, they put on what’s called a net meter. And it tracks the flow of energy of electricity either from the grid into our building or from the solar array back to their grid.”
Kent State is careful to not overproduce like this all the time as the electric companies do not pay enough to alleviate the cost of that production. By reducing overproduction, the university electric bill has the potential to net out at zero, essentially eliminating the cost altogether.
The regional campus projects, while impactful for the campuses, are not serving as a jumping off point for larger solar arrays at those locations, but they have proven to be effective for the campuses; energy savings. The Ashtabula
The new installations will incorporate batteries in order to make them more financially feasible. There are a few different ways the university can make or save money by partnering with electric companies on solar panel installation and the new installations battery will be able to offset grid instability just by turning the battery on, which electric companies will pay for.
There is no plan to use the money saved with the renewable energy sources in a specific way, only to fill in the gaps where funding is needed for the university. Misbrener said labor costs and maintenance costs across campus as possible places the funding may go.
Little upkeep is needed on the panels and they are maintained by the company that installs the project. Misbrener said of the 1716 panels mounted on the roof of the Field House, only a few have needed to be replaced or updated over the past ten years.
Because of their size, the arrays are visible from a great distance and are difficult to miss, so Misbrener hopes they can be a reminder of sustainability efforts and the part that students and community members play in that.
“We are walking the walk as a liberal college and a state college. We have not only been very good stewards of the environment, but of the finances as well because all the projects are designed to save money over what we’re currently paying on the electric bill,” Misbrener said. “It’s very important that we did it the way we did.”