Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Lights for buildings on campus often have to stay on all night due to their ours of operation according to Jon Ladley, facilities planning manager.

March 13, 2019

Cornell’s Renewable Energy Initiatives: From 115-Year-Old Hydroelectric Plant to Rooftop Solar Farms

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Built in 1904 in the Fall Creek gorge, Cornell’s first hydroelectric plant served to provide renewable energy to Ithaca’s campus. More than 120 years later, the plant generates only two percent of Cornell’s total electricity, according to Sarah Zemanick, director of campus sustainability office.

While the Fall Creek plant is no longer a major player in Cornell’s sustainability plan, the University has taken other measures to take advantage of renewable energies.

In 2007, Cornell became one of the first universities to sign the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, whose goal is to reduce emissions of greenhouse emissions. Cornell itself has planned to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2035.

In 2010, Cornell took a step to stop burning coal for electricity generation as part of the plan. Starting in 2014, two regional solar farms outside the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport and several rooftop solar farms on Cornell buildings had been put into generating electricity for campus buildings.

Cornell recently opened Cascadilla Community Solar Farm, “the University’s sixth large-scale solar project,” according to a press release. The solar farms will generate 30-gigawatt hours to serve about 3,000 average local residential homes, the same press release said.

By the end of this summer, the electricity generated by renewable energy will hit 20 percent, according to Zemanick, who emphasized the goal to reach 100 percent by 2035.

But the route to 100 percent won’t be a smooth path. One major roadblock is the current energy policy, which provides more subsidization for fossil fuels than for renewable energies, creating an “uneven playing field” between their prices.

“Something that is getting in our way is the subsidization to the fossil fuel industry, like tax benefits to fossil fuel extraction and transportation,” Zemanick said.

Communication with local communities can also be a problem, as some people simply don’t like solar farms to be built on a site where they can see them, according to Zemanick.

In terms of financing the transition to renewable energy, Zemanick believed that although the initial capital investment could be costly, the cumulative costs over the lifetime would be much lower than using fossil fuels.

“And if we take into account … of the social cost of carbon … like the damage to the climate and damage to people’s health from air pollution, renewable energy is actually less expensive,” said Zemanick.

Though a report on Cornell Sustainable Campus showed that the GHG emissions from on-site fossil fuel combustions only slightly reduced from 176,700 to 173,600 metric tons per fiscal year, Zemanick argued that this insignificant reduction was due to newly added buildings on Cornell’s campus between 2008 to 2017. And the reduction in energy use in existing buildings is the reason why the number has not increased, Zemanick said.

The other older buildings on campus, on the other hand, would not be too much of a burden to Cornell reaching its sustainability goals. The energy distribution system, which won the 2001 System of the Year Award from the International District Energy Association, connects most buildings to central utilities and delivers energy through underground pipings.

“When we update our central energy system, all the buildings serviced by them will be served by renewables,” said Zemanick, though she admitted some energy-inefficient buildings do need renovation.

As for future technological improvement, Zemanick’s team is collaborating with Cornell’s College of Engineering on an Earth Source Heat Initiative, which will extract heat from the crust.

“There needs to be a culture change in terms of willingness to put time and energy into upgrading the current electricity distribution system,” Zemanick said.