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The future of energy is sustainable: new ideas for powering the world are more readily available each and every day. In Western New York, the University at Buffalo (UB), State University of New York has embraced a sustainable energy future, and they’re flaunting it. On Earth Day (April 22) last year, the UB Solar Strand, a cluster of solar panels, was unveiled to the public.

Funded by the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the UB Solar Strand is believed to be the largest and most publicly accessible solar array in the world. The opening took place just one year after the power to the structure was switched on, and over the past year the Strand has turned over 1 million kilowatt-hours of energy*, which powers 700 student apartments. Up-to-the-minute Solar Strand data — including current and to-date solar energy generation, and total CO2 offset equivalents — can be accessed via the online Solar Strand Dashboard.

Looking north at the University at Buffalo Solar Strand. Photo: Amanda Marie Rogers.

Many different components came together to make the Strand possible. Between 2006 and 2010, when UB was developing a campus master plan, the opportunity surfaced for the University to be a charter signature to the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment pledge. With sustainability and renewable energy in mind, UB’s plan is to become carbon-neutral by 2030 — an ambitious goal for an 11 million gross square-foot campus where many buildings were constructed before the energy standards (efficient appliances and building materials) of today. At the same time, the NYPA had already commissioned and contracted a power plant to be developed in the 15 acres at the entrance. UB and the NYPA combined forces a few years ago with a mission to dispute the then-popular notion that solar was ugly.

Since the design would welcome visitors to the campus, it had to be unique, pleasing to the eye and a symbol of UB’s present and future ambitions. In early 2010, the quest for an architect began. The University sent requests for proposals to qualified artists around the world. Of that pool, 30 responded and nine submitted final applications. Three finalists were compensated to create prototypes that went on display and were juried at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

The winner was Walter Hood, an internationally-renowned architect who is a professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning and Urban Design at UC Berkeley. Mr. Hood designed the Solar Strand as a figurative DNA fingerprint. “What was extraordinary about Walter’s work is that he understood the conditions of our campus,” we were told by Mr. Robert Shibley, Director and Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, a main figure in the development of the Strand.

Building the structure also proved to be an exercise in collaboration and reuse. Used bricks from buildings and broken concrete from construction projects around the campus went into the building of the walkways, and the football team helped to bring the materials to the site. Nurseries, volunteers and student leadership organized the planting of trees to fit in to the geometry of the piece. Employees attended workshops to learn where to mow — “Every time they mow, they become artists at the Strand,” added Mr. Shibley.

A walkway at UB’s Solar Strand. Photo: Amanda Marie Rogers.

Five thousand photovoltaic (PV) panels rest on three 30-foot-wide strands to convert solar radiation into useable electricity. Walkways run between the panels, creating an interactive space. Considering that solar arrays of the past were atop buildings and tucked in untouchable places, the public access to the Strand was a shocking revelation for many people. However, a space that demands interaction reflects UB’s mission as a campus — to bring about knowledge. “We’re a University,” Mr. Shibley said, “We don’t fence things off; put your hands on it.”

A side view of UB’s Solar Strand. Photo: Amanda Marie Rogers.

To this end, there are built-in classrooms in the area as well as numerous biological plant and animal species to observe in the natural evolution of the site. Children visit the site to explore. An app is available that pinpoints visitors by GPS, sending an up-to-date reading on the solar function, the ecology in the area and the dynamics of recycling. The app is an interesting way of interacting with the solar array — it will allow individuals to see what is going on at the Strand as they stand next to it. Already on the website is a breakdown of the Solar Strand in action, listing the number of light bulbs powered for a year, the number of trees planted and the tons of carbon and gas saved.

Renewable energy is just one part of the puzzle to reaching the 2030 goal. But it’s a start, and a symbol that UB and Western New York as a whole are ready to work toward a green future. Mr. Shibley told us, “It’s not just what you produce but how little you use and how you think about being on this planet. Something as friendly, engaging and powerful as the Strand is a message about not just how we produce power but who we are.”

Traveling the walkways, one is presented with all that can be accomplished when technological innovation supports the environment. Amidst the gathering of useable energy, animals have taken up residence. Birds chirp happily, and we even spotted a furry friend, a woodchuck, dashing into the brush. World-renowned art, energy and sustainability: it’s all here.

A furry friend enjoys UB’s Solar Strand. Photo: Amanda Marie Rogers.

NEXT STEPS:

Want to see the Solar Strand? It’s located on UB’s North Campus, between Millersport Highway and Flint Road, just north of Maple Road.

Interested in UB’s Environmental Studies? Take a Sustainability course, or join UB’s Sustainability Academy.