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Florida Gulf Coast University’s 2MW Solar Field

Credits: ©2009 Marco News/Leslie Williams Hale

There was no flip of a giant switch or flickering of lights. Over the last week, Florida Gulf Coast University’s long-awaited solar field has gone live, with the full 2-megawatt system now powering several main buildings on campus. As of December 2009, it is the largest working solar field operated by a university in the United States, and has opened within the same year when university officials broke ground. “It’s gone very smoothly and we’re very excited about it being up and running,” said university President Wilson Bradshaw Tuesday. “It’s now providing electricity to over 200,000 square feet of space. We’re really pleased.”


Florida Gulf Coast University Solar PV Installation

The Florida Gulf Coast University solar PV installation encompasses a 19-acre primary site near the campus entrance that serves as a solar showcase of sorts. Ground-mounted panels will move with the sun to capture direct rays. Additionally, rooftop panels will be installed at Alico Arena, Everglades Hall, the library, campus support complex and two parking garages. ©2009 FGCU

On Tuesday, the anticipated completion date, a small crew of workers was on the site testing the last few components of the photovoltaic facility to ensure everything was in working order.

“The five inverters were sequenced on and off, and tested over the last five days,” said Dell Jones, vice president of Regenesis Energy Services, one of three firms working on the solar field. “They’ve been going on and off, and on and off. Today, all of the inverters are up and running.”

At the FGCU men’s basketball game against DePaul Tuesday night, freshman Alison Tishman shared her thoughts.

“I think it’s a very good idea to have, because it’s very environmentally friendly,” said Tishman, an English major. “It’s saving whatever resources we have.”

Public relations major Christina Bockisch agreed, but said most students at the university know little about the project — she and her friends were surprised to learn the solar field had gone live this week.

“They don’t really talk about it much,” she said of the university.

“If you’re not in student government, they don’t talk about it. I think the students should know. They say they’re going to start tours, but no one knows when.”

Bockisch said she would go on a tour when they become available, but said right now, the only thing most students seem to know about the project is how many trees were cut down to clear the land for the solar panels. The 20-acre parcel where the solar field was built was slated for development at some point, and university officials have undertaken mitigation efforts on the land like moving native plants and animals to a new habitat.

While the solar plant is producing power, workers are still “fiddling with the settings,” Jones said, which means a few things might not look quite right with the solar panels. On Tuesday afternoon, the panels faced due east, away from the sun, as workers ran tests and adjusted the tracking on the panels, which are designed to follow the sun as it makes its way across the sky.

The entire $14 million project still appears to be under budget, though Jones said the final calculations need to be made before anyone knows how far under budget it will be.

Many members of university administration are out of the office this week, including Vice President Joe Shepard, who has overseen much of the project. In November, he was predicting the project would come in roughly $3 million under budget.

A ceremony to mark the project’s completion is expected sometime in the spring, Shepard said Friday.

Though the solar field is connected to the energy grid — through an agreement with Florida Power & Light — more work will be done in the coming weeks to clean up the work site and tweak the operations.

“The way big projects like this work, it’s not like one day, all of a sudden, all of the workers drop their wrenches and walk off the job,” said Jones. “For tax purposes, we had to be operating by the end of the year.”

Two federal incentives were available to the university if the solar field went on line before the end of 2010, including a treasury grant that once took the form of a tax credit.

In all, the project comprises 10,080 panels installed on 16 acres. About half of the project’s total cost has been funded with a state grant, and the field is expected to save the university $700,000 to $800,000 a year in energy costs.

Three main buildings are powered by the field: Lutgert Hall, Holmes Hall and Academic Building 7, the newest on campus.

When the field hooked into the grid, no one in any of those buildings would have noticed a change, Jones said, though the campus is largely empty with classes dismissed until January.

“What happens is the electricity synchronizes with the FP&L grid,” Jones said. “And basically, it’s seamless.”


Florida Gulf Coast University Switches To Solar Power