REC Solar debuts new solar farm for Cal Poly, develops student education program

Cal Poly solar

Cal Poly’s new solar farm, the university’s first major energy project since announcing a goal of climate neutrality, was dedicated at a Jan. 24, ceremony at the site.

The 18.5-acre solar farm will generate more than 11 million kWh per year — enough to power more than 1,000 homes, or about 25 percent of Cal Poly’s total needs — and includes more than 16,000 individual solar panels with a capacity of 4.5 megawatts (AC). The Cal Poly project uses single-axis tracking technology.

In addition to the environmental benefits, the energy it produces will provide direct savings of about $10 million on Cal Poly’s utility bills over 20 years and will create “Learn by Doing” opportunities for students.

Cal Poly partnered with San Luis Obispo-based REC Solar (which was founded by Cal Poly graduates) to design, construct and maintain the solar facility. REC Solar is a Duke Energy-owned company and a leading provider of solar solutions for colleges, universities and school districts with more than 100 completed solar projects for schools that together generate over 30 megawatts. REC Solar also develops solar curriculum and other means of academic enrichment for school clients.

The solar farm was designed to maximize academic applications for both students and faculty by creating a solar engineering and microgrid laboratory in the Electrical Engineering building for students to conduct experiments with solar technology in a hands-on environment. A wide variety of solar farm performance data will be continuously measured and made available through a web-based dashboard to aid in solar technology research.

In addition, Cal Poly’s Animal Science program will use the site to research vegetation management practices for utility scale solar farms by grazing the site with its sheep herd.

“We applaud Cal Poly’s creativity in leveraging the system to inspire research in sustainability for years to come. REC Solar is privileged to be a part of the university’s sustainability journey,” said REC Solar CEO Matt Walz.

REC Solar is partnering with the university to provide funds for student and faculty involvement; help develop curriculum that meets Cal Poly’s sustainability learning objectives and educates future renewable energy professionals; and collaborate on applied research. The curriculum will integrate solar photovoltaic (PV) fundamentals into a variety of science and engineering courses and create new courses for renewable energy system design.

“This is a huge step toward our goal of climate neutrality, and we are very excited about using this new facility to support students’ hands-on learning,” said Dennis Elliot, the university’s director of energy, utilities and sustainability.

California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 set groundbreaking goals to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The 23-campus California State University system, including Cal Poly, chose to go beyond state mandates in its 2014 Sustainability Policy, aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2040 — 10 years ahead of the state goal.

For Earth Day 2016, university President Jeffrey D. Armstrong made Cal Poly a Charter Signatory to the Climate Leadership Commitment, establishing a goal to implement clean-energy plans and achieve a net-zero energy status through energy efficiency and renewable energy by 2050. The efforts also include LEED certified energy-efficient campus buildings, Cal Poly currently has seven LEED-certified projects that represent nearly a third of the campus’ 6 million square feet of building space.

Visit for more on Cal Poly’s sustainability efforts.

— Solar Builder magazine

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