Cornell's hydroelectric dam in Fall Creek, the only hydroelectric dam on the main campus of any U.S. university.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Cornell's hydroelectric dam in Fall Creek, the only hydroelectric dam on the main campus of any U.S. university.

January 30, 2020

University Aims For Sustainability with Renewable Energy Projects

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The University is trying to renew its permit to operate the Cornell University Hydroelectric Project, which includes a dam, turbines and associated structures which have been on Fall Creek for decades, providing energy to campus.

Renewable energy initiatives like the hydroelectric plant are a part of Cornell’s goal of a carbon neutral campus by 2035.

According to a Federal Energy Commission Report, the average annual power generation from 2013 to 2018 was over 4,500 megawatt-hours. All the power produced by the plant is used to fuel Cornell’s main campus.

The hydroelectric project is designed as a “run of the river operation,” meaning that Cornell uses water as it flows in Fall Creek and does not store water. Water from Beebe Lake flows into the facility, through a pipe that bypasses most of Fall Creek and then through turbines that make electricity for campus, before it is discharged.

Sustainable energy is not only a part of Cornell’s future, it is part of its past. Cornell Hydroelectric was built in 1904, according to Cornell Facilities. Cornell is the only university in the U.S. with an operating hydroelectric plant, according to Frank Perry, program manager,  Facilities and Campus Services.

The century-old turbines and generators were replaced in 1981, and the turbines were refurbished in 2014. The request for a new major license was filed on June 28, 2019, according to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission notice. The Federal Energy Commission wrote in a report that it now intends to conduct an assessment for the hydroelectric project, analyzing its “site-specific and cumulative environmental impacts.” 

The Cornell University hydroelectric project is not the only way that the University is harnessing local waterways to reduce its carbon footprint.

Cornell’s Lake Source Cooling plant places warmer water used by Cornell University and Ithaca High School next to cold lake water, which absorbs some of the heat and reduces Cornell’s use of fossil fuels for cooling.

“The deep waters of Cayuga Lake are a naturally renewable source of chill that will save 80 percent of the energy used for cooling by conventional refrigeration,” the Facilities and Campus Services website read “Some energy is needed to pipe the cold water two miles to the heat exchanger, but gravity does the rest, taking it back to the lake.”

Student-elected Trustee Jaewon Sim ’21 — who ran his campaign on making Cornell more financially accessible to all students — is optimistic about this plan because he sees it as not only environmentally sustainable, but also as a good financial decision.

“The heat exchange plant is one of the most successful projects, and it saves us money,” Sim said in an interview with The Sun. “It is not just an environmentally conscious decision, it is a good financial decision.”