Q&A with Dennis Elliot, Director of Energy, Utilities and Sustainability at Cal Poly
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is a nationally-ranked university known for their philosophy of Learn by Doing. The university is committed to leadership in sustainability in both academics and operations. In April 2017 Cal Poly and REC Solar announced that we are working together to bring a 4.5 megawatt (AC) solar farm to the campus. The 18.5-acre solar farm is slated for completion in winter of 2017. It will include more than 16,000 individual solar panels and will generate over 11 million kWh per year — about 25 percent of Cal Poly’s total needs.
In addition to being headquartered in San Luis Obispo, REC Solar was founded by two Cal Poly grads and currently has many alumni on staff, making this a particularly exciting project for our team.
The leader of the initiative at Cal Poly is Dennis Elliot, Director of Energy, Utilities and Sustainability. We recently interviewed him about the solar farm and other initiatives he is overseeing.
Can you tell us more about what your team oversees at the university?
With three full time staff and five part time student interns, the Energy, Utilities and Sustainability team is responsible for the university’s $10M utility budget and Climate Action Plan, energy and water conservation programs, recycling initiatives, educational outreach, and support of student clubs and curriculum development related to sustainability and climate change.
What went into your planning process when you first started evaluating the solar farm idea?
Very early on, we became aware of the opportunities presented by the RES-BCT program, which is allowing us to develop a much larger solar system than would have been possible behind Cal Poly’s main meter. We spent a great deal of time on site selection and structuring a comprehensive Request for Proposal to ensure a successful project and fair playing field for bidders. We wanted this project to result in a long-term collaborative relationship with the provider to develop academic applications of the solar farm in support of the university’s educational mission and student success.
What advice do you have for other universities that are evaluating and prioritizing renewable energy investments?
Consider the various finance models available from solar providers today – they provide a lot of options to fit your business needs. If you have enough open space, seriously consider pursuing the largest ground mounted array that you have space for to achieve the greatest return on investment. We found the RES-BCT program was a good fit for this project, and specified single axis tracking technology to maximize output from a constrained site, as well as mitigating the risk associated with expected changes in time of use periods and rates in the future.
What excites you most about the solar farm project?
Of course I am excited about how much this project is going to save Cal Poly over its 20 year life, and the huge step we are taking toward our goal of climate neutrality. I am most excited about the academic applications of both the solar farm and an associated hands-on solar engineering lab facility that will be designed and constructed near one of the engineering buildings. The work we do to reduce the university’s footprint is meaningful and important, but using these projects to educate future leaders, decision makers, and technology innovators to confront the challenges of climate change is the real reason we are all here.
How will students and faculty be involved?
We are excited that REC Solar will be hiring some Cal Poly students to help in the design and construction of the solar farm itself. In addition, students and faculty in the Electrical Engineering Department are already envisioning future curriculum and lab experiments to utilize the hands-on solar engineering laboratory to be built in the campus core as part of our world class EE Power Program. We look forward to collaborating with REC Solar for years to come on other curricular and applied research opportunities to use these infrastructure systems as teaching tools.
To learn more about the Cal Poly sustainability efforts, visit https://afd.calpoly.edu/sustainability/.