News Local/State

20-Acre Solar Farm Under Construction At U Of I

The site along Windsor Road on the University of Illinois Urbana campus, where a solar farm is under construction.

This field of anchors will eventually hold solar panels for a solar farm along Windsor Road on the University of Illinois Urbana campus (Jim Meadows/Illinois Public Media)

The newest crop to be produced at the University of Illinois South Farms will not be fruits or vegetables, but electricity. The University of Illinois constructing the solar farm in a 20-acre field along Windsor Road on the south end of its Urbana campus. The facility should be ready to start generating electricity by Thanksgiving.

At present, motorists who drive by the solar farm site on Windsor Road in Champaign will see thousands of skinny metal poles. Morgan Johnston, Sustainability Coordinator with U of I Facilities and Services says those poles are the anchors for the solar panels that will soon be installed.

“They expect to receive the panels themselves, later, towards the end of September,” said Johnston. “And then, we’ll start watching them actually put the frames on those posts. And the solar panels will be showing up. They’ll face south, so you’ll maybe see the back of them from Windsor Road.”

The U of I has some demonstrator and research solar energy installations on the Urbana campus, but this is its first utility-grade solar farm --- designed to provide 2% of the campus’ total electric needs.

But there’s a price. Due to upfront expenses, the solar farm’s electricity will cost more than electricity bought off the grid --- about $5.3 million between now and 2035. That’s when the warranty on the solar panels will run out. And Johnston says costs for producing electricity at the solar farm should then go down.

“If they continue to give us energy past 20 years, then we get additional cost avoidance from other electricity we would not have to buy,” said Johnston.

Phoenix Solar will run the solar farm for its first ten years, and the U of I will buy its electricity from the German-based company. After that, the solar farm reverts to university ownership.

The solar farm will help the university meet its goal of making the Urbana campus carbon neutral by 2050. The extra cost of solar electricity will be partially covered by student fees.