Dennis Elliot sat with his hands folded at his desk, surrounded by 34 years worth of memories and research.
“It means a lot,” Director of Energy, Utilities and Sustainability Elliot said, pointing to the degree above his desk. “I’ve been at Cal Poly a long time … it’s pretty cool to be able to give back.”
Elliot graduated from Cal Poly in 1993 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Now, he’s taking on the largest sustainability project of his career and creating a lasting legacy at Cal Poly.
After breaking ground about two weeks ago on the largest single solar array in the California State University system, Elliot and his team are at the forefront of Cal Poly’s sustainability efforts.
The solar farm will be completed December 2017. More than 16,000 individual panels will generate up to 11 million kilowatt hours of energy per year, enough to power 1,000 homes. About 25 percent of Cal Poly’s power will come from the farm and save $17 million over the next 20 years in energy costs.
Elliot said with this project, the opportunities for research will expand from the engineering department into construction management, architecture, city and regional planning, finance, public policy and political science.
“We are really just starting to scratch the surface,” he said.
Searching for clean energy
The solar farm is being built as the central coast prepares for the planned closure of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in December, which has caused conflict over green energy since the 1960s. With this closure, San Luis Obispo County will lose a major source of clean energy.
Electrical engineering associate professor Bill Ahlgren emphasized Cal Poly’s efforts to not only act as a living lab, but as an example of how to diminish human contributions to global warming. The solar farm is part of these efforts.
“We are part of a giant effort to mitigate anthropomorphic entropic processes,” Ahlgren said.
This means finding more natural ways to produce energy instead of burning fossil fuels. In this case, the solar rays are harnessed to create natural power with no carbon emitted.
“We need to stop throwing carbon into the air,” Ahlgren said. “Some people still don’t get it.”
The solar array is being constructed in the same area as the sheep unit, allowing sheep to graze alongside the solar panels, preventing overgrowth. Animal science students will study how the sheep benefit from the shade.
Sustainability Coordinator Kylee Singh said this crossover between energy and agriculture industries will solve problems in both areas.
“It will be [a] pretty cool way to maintain [agriculture] and renewable energy in the same space,” Singh said.
Though the array creates cohesion between agriculture and renewable energy, the solar panels will take more than 18.5 of the sheep unit’s 20 acres. However, Singh said the coexistence could be beneficial to the environment.
Singh said in many places, construction of renewable options involves paving over many acres of land intended for agriculture. However, Cal Poly’s solar farm will not replace agricultural land because it is shared.
“Places like Southern California are paving over their agriculture, whether or not it’s [a] good idea,” Singh said.
This project will provide equal chances for departments to research and set an example of coexistence. The hope is that the two will thrive together after the project is complete.
“Campus will be a living lab … making sure that Cal Poly is a leader and a more sustainable campus,” Singh said.
Elliot said there will be many ways students can get involved with the living lab. The solar farm can prove useful for many departments, as it will generate data every five minutes. The database will record how much energy is being processed and can determine if any of the panels are having trouble producing energy. These recordings will provide an enormous data set for analysis.
This project will do more than just catch the light on campus; it could be a sustainable legacy and testament to innovation.
“I’m not just building this and walking away,” Elliot said. “It’s going to last a long time.”