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Solar Project Plays Key Role In Combating Climate Change At UC Davis

Credit / UC Davis

The largest solar power farm on a university campus in the nation was built at UC Davis. The system provides 14 percent of the university's electricity needs.

Credit / UC Davis

The University of California recently announced at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris that it’s joining a coalition to invest in clean energy technologies to fight climate change.
Solar power is playing a key role toward that goal. UC Davis recently unveiled the largest solar power farm on a university campus in the nation.

When given directions to UC Davis’s new solar power plant, I was told, “You can’t miss it." That was a huge understatement. Row after row of ground-mounted solar panels stretch across the landscape almost as far as the eye can see. 62 acres of panels that track the sun.

I meet UC Davis Utilities Director David Phillips at the front gate of the solar farm to get a closer look.

“It really is amazing to think how big it is,”says Phillips.

Solar Farm tiny people

This aerial photo shows the scale of the 16.3 MW solar power plant. Credit / UC Davis 


Phillips says aerial photos were taken recently with about 40 people involved in the project standing in the middle of the solar farm.

“For the airplane to get pictures that showed the whole site, we could barely see the airplane, and then when we got the photos back we could barely see the people," says Phillips. "We had to zoom in about 50 times to even find the people on the site, that’s how massive this site is.”

The solar farm was designed and built by SunPower, which owns and operates the system and sells the power to UC Davis. It can produce 16 megawatts of electricity. While that may sound like a lot, Phillips says it will provide just 14 percent of the electricity the campus needs every day.

"UC Davis uses a lot of electricity. We’re on the size of a small city so it really gives you an idea of how much energy that is when you see that it’s 62 acres and it’s still only 14 percent," says Phillips. "So it does provide an interesting scale for how much energy is used and how much effort it’s going to take to zero out the rest of that electricity."

solar farm closeupThe solar farm at UC Davis will reduce the university's greenhouse gases by nine percent.  Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio


UC Davis and the entire UC System have made a commitment to reduce as much greenhouse gases as it produces by 2025. The carbon neutrality goal will take even more than 62 acres of solar panels according to Camille Kirk, assistant director of sustainability at UC Davis. She's done the math to figure out how much greenhouse gases the university emits every year.

“We’re at 210,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent,”says Kirk.

That’s about the same as the emissions from 44,000 cars driven for a year. It includes emissions from not just the Davis campus, but also the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, and the Bodega Bay Marine Lab.

"So we’ve still got a long way to go, but we’ve definitely done reduction work already," says Kirk.

Kirk says the solar farm alone will reduce total emissions by about nine percent. The university is already generating five megawatts of existing renewable power from solar panels over parking spaces, on top of buildings, and in the West Village housing community.

Solar panels work best when they’re clean. David Phillips says that’s why a Sunpower team developed a battery-powered robot.

“It has sensors to know when it gets to the end. When it does, it comes back," says Phillips. "It’s much quicker in terms of cleaning the panels and uses a lot less water than traditional methods.”

Solar Farm robotRobotic solar washer moves along panel. The robot uses 75 percent less water than traditional power washing.  Credit / UC Davis


It uses about 75 percent less water than power washing, which is great in the drought.  

But experts say more projects of this scale will be needed to reach carbon neutrality. The UC has plans to purchase more than 200-thousand megawatt hours per year of solar energy to supply campuses.

“It won’t be easy because no one has ever done it," says Wendall Brase, co-chair of the Global Climate Leadership Council for UC President Janet Napolitano and UC Irvine Vice Chancellor." But in California the public expects the University of California to prove that it’s possible to do things that people thought would be almost impossible.”

You can check out the UC Davis solar farm just south of Interstate 80. You can’t miss it. 

Amy Quinton

Environment Reporter

Amy came to Sacramento from New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) where she was Environment Reporter. Amy has also reported for NPR member stations WFAE in Charlotte, WAMU in Washington D.C. and American Public Media's "Marketplace."  Read Full Bio