Luther College leads the way on solar energy

Luther College in Decorah has built the largest solar array in Iowa, which will power the state’s first college housing facility to be “net zero” as a greenhouse gas emitter.  

Luther’s reputation as a “green college” comes from a wide range of sustainability policies on campus: reducing energy consumption, providing more locally-grown food, offering car sharing and shuttle services, recycling more materials, and planning to use the land wisely. This summer Luther received a 2012 Second Nature Climate Leadership Award, and last year the school was one of only eight colleges or universities nationwide to receive an “A” on the College Sustainability Report Card.

Luther’s energy-related projects have attracted the most attention. The U.S. Department of Energy recognized these achievements in July:

“‘Clean Energy in Our Community’ will highlight small communities around the country working to promote clean renewable energy initiatives and how our colleges and universities in particular play a critical role in shaping our communities and driving America’s clean energy economy,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. “Luther College and Decorah, Iowa, are great examples of how our local communities can help lead the way in making sure that America wins the global clean energy race.”

Luther College installed a 1.6 megawatt wind turbine last fall. This summer Luther established the largest zero-emission facility in Iowa by using a 280 KW solar field to power a 100 plus student residential housing complex that uses geothermal energy to heat and cool the facility. Luther has also created an Office of Sustainability, which is helping the college reach its goal of cutting its carbon footprint in half by 2015 and becoming carbon neutral by 2030.

Along with these commitments, Luther helped others in Decorah, Iowa, establish the Winneshiek Energy District, which has helped the residents of Winneshiek County invest more than $1 million dollars in energy efficiency programs over the past two years.

That solar array is approximately the size of a football field and will help make Baker Village “net zero.”

Baker Village is a highly efficient, all electric housing facility that uses geothermal energy for heating and cooling.  The village consists of four townhouse-style buildings that accommodate 112 senior students as well as the Baker Commons building.  This sustainability initiative will help Luther achieve its carbon reduction goals by making Baker Village a net zero (emissions) facility.  Unlike the smaller solar energy project at Luther’s Sustainability House that consists of only 18 photovoltaic panels, the solar array used to power Baker Village will consist of 1,250 separate panels mounted in six rows on about two acres of land Luther College owns north of Pole Line Road next to a local beverage distributor.  The panels are manufactured in the United States by SolarWorld and have a 25 year warranty. The electricity will travel to Baker Village via a half-mile underground transmission line.  

How much electricity will it produce?

The solar field will produce a maximum of 280 kilowatts (kW) of electricity while the sun is shining.  However, multiple factors such as cloud cover, shadows, and weather issues prevent the system from running at peak efficiency.  Considering these variables, the solar field powering Baker Village is expected to produce an estimated 375,000 kW hours of electricity, which is the average amount of electricity Baker Village has consumed each of the last three years (2009-2011).

How will the electricity be used?

The electricity from Luther’s solar panels will be used at Baker Village to power all electrical appliances as well as the geothermal heating and cooling system.  When the panels produce more electricity than is being consumed the excess will flow into Alliant Energy’s grid where it will be used to power nearby homes in Decorah.  The State of Iowa has a net metering law that allows Luther to get a credit for these kilowatt hours that feed the local grid.  Luther can then draw on that positive balance when it uses electricity from the grid to power Baker Village after the sun has set.

What is the cost to build the solar energy system/ How was it funded?

Luther College is partnering with Decorah Solar Field, LLC, which is owned by local resident Larry Grimstad.  The total estimated, installed cost of the system is $1.2 million.  Luther plans on leasing the system from Decorah Solar Field for seven years and then hopes to purchase the system at a substantially reduced cost after the system has been fully depreciated for tax purposes.  Luther will make the lease payments by utilizing funds that otherwise have been used for electricity purchases as well as donations to the college’s Renewable Energy line in the Sesquicentennial Fund.  The intended purchase of the system will be financed via future avoided electricity purchases as well as donations to the college for renewable energy.  

Iowa’s “net metering” policy, which dates to 1984, helped make Luther College’s Baker Village breakthrough feasible nearly three decades later.

That accomplishment got me thinking about some of the other landmark environmental policies approved by Iowa’s Democratic-controlled legislature and signed into law by Governor Terry Branstad during the 1980s, such as the state’s groundwater protection act and the first renewable electricity standard. Iowa needs more cooperation to improve our energy policy during the next few years, rather than another protracted fight at the statehouse over nuclear power. A feed-in tariff would be an excellent way to promote solar power. We also need to encourage more small-scale wind power generation, which “to put more of the wealth created into the pockets of farmers and increase the amount of wind energy that can be distributed through the existing electrical grid.”

Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.

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