Sustainability 101

The University at Buffalo’s Solar Strand

An Artful and Accessible Clean Energy System

Sustainability in Action MAPIn 2009 the New York Power Authority (NYPA) approached the University at Buffalo with the idea to build a conventional ground-mounted solar array sealed off by a chain-linked fence on the University’s North Campus. The University liked this idea-sort of.  It wanted an installation that would produce renewable energy, avoid greenhouse gases, and cut electricity costs, but it also wanted something beautiful that is integrated into the community and accessible to it.  The University got all of that through the Solar Strand.

Renowned landscape architect Walter Hood was selected to design the Solar Strand through an international competition hosted by UB. Hood is a professor and former chair of the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning. He is also founding principal of the award-winning firm Hood Design.

Besides his credentials, Hood was also chosen to design the Strand because of his idea to seamlessly fit the Solar Strand into the site’s physical landscape and culture. Robert G. Shibley, dean of UB’s School of Architecture and Planning and chair of the selection committee said “The jury was struck by his thoughtful response to the history, geography and ecology of the campus, from the way he envisioned the Solar Strand feathering into the wildness of the creek on the site to its non-invasive treatment of the indigenous vernal pools.” The Strand also conveys to visitors entering the University’s Flint Road entrance that the University at Buffalo is a major public research university. This is because the site’s three rows of solar panels resemble a DNA fingerprint, especially from a birds-eye view.

“We envisioned a solar array that would be accessible, integrated into our curriculum, relevant to our community, and representative of a new design vocabulary….” – Robert G. Shibley, Dean of  UB’s School of Architecture and Planning.

Hood’s design also opens the Strand up to the community, which is unique because arrays are usually off-limits. The site invites in community members, kindergarten through twelfth grade classes, and college students with walkways and attractive shrubs and trees. The public can also use the spaces under the three highest solar panels for gatherings.

The Solar Strand app in development will further increase the Strand’s accessibility. The heart of the app is an Interactive Tour that features 8 data waypoints showcasing the site’s main features. These data waypoints in turn unlock additional app features. There will also be two other “secret” waypoints that are not marked on the map but are only discovered through exploring the site. The app will curate visitors but also allow them to explore and discover the site, connect with other visitors, and “leave their mark” on the site.

The Solar Strand is one of the largest ground-mounted photovoltaic arrays in the state, at 140 feet wide and 1,250 feet long (which is about a quarter of a mile). The array’s 3,200 photovoltaic panels can generate 750 kilowatts of renewable energy- enough to power hundreds of on-campus apartments, save the University more than $100,000 in annual electricity costs, and avoid nearly 400 tons of harmful greenhouse gases each year. You can see the environmental impact of the Strand since it went live in 2012 by week, day, and minute by viewing the Solar Strand Dashboard on the University at Buffalo’s Sustainability portal.

The array’s production capacity may be surprising, considering Buffalo’s reputation for being overcast. But data from the National Weather Service shows that from May through November Buffalo is actually the sunniest and driest city in the Northeast, making the Strand an effective power generator.

The Strand meets UB’s environmental stewardship goals described in the UB 2020 strategic plan and the “Building UB: The Comprehensive Physical Plan“, which is a master plan for UB’s three campuses. The Solar Strand also aligns with Governor Cuomo’s NY-Sun Initiative, which aims to quadruple New York’s annual solar power development. The Strand also meets the goals of the Green Power Program created by NYPA. NYPA has provided $7 million in funding for the Strand and also managed the 40 plus Western New York Contractors that contributed to the Strand’s construction.

To learn more about the Solar Strand watch the video below.