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Science, Powered by the Sun

September 2, 2015
Solar panels will soon power most of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Photo:  Brookhaven National Lab

Most of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s electricity will soon be generated by the sun. Photo: Brookhaven National Lab

Two solar farms will soon be powering 75 percent of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, whose high-tech laboratories are home to some of the world’s leading Earth and climate scientists. The new power sources are expected to cut the campus’s electricity bill by 20 percent and reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by half.

Lamont had been searching for a way to tip its electricity balance toward renewable sources, but the campus, about 20 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River Palisades, is too heavily forested for solar panels. Working with SunEdison and Siemens Industries, Lamont officials came up with an alternative: a power purchase agreement that includes solar arrays to be built on vacant land in nearby Orange County, New York.

The solar farm solution takes advantage of already open land while boosting renewable energy in the region and saving the campus hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on utility bills.

Lamont signed a 25-year power purchase agreement this month, and the solar farms are targeted to be operational by the end of 2016.

“We have long recognized that over 70 percent of the carbon footprint of our campus is due to our electricity consumption, even with the relatively clean mix of electricity sources in New York State. We are pleased that this one project will result in a reduction of over 50 percent of our CO2 emissions, well ahead of the goal of 30 percent reduction established by the university,” said Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Director Sean Solomon. Columbia University has an emissions reduction pledge to cut carbon emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2017 on its main campus in New York City. Once the solar farms are operating, the Lamont campus will far exceed that level.

Power purchase agreements allow institutions like Lamont to develop low-cost renewable energy sources without upfront capital outlays, saving them millions of dollars over time while expanding the renewable energy pool. In Lamont’s case, the farm’s owners will lease the land to SunEdison, Siemens will build and operate the solar farms, and Lamont will purchase all of the energy produced, using remote net metering to offset the campus’s utility bills.

Lamont’s electricity mix currently is about 40 percent renewable sources. Once the solar farms are operating, the remaining 25 percent of the campus’s power will come from a similar mix.

Learn more about the work underway at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.