CARLINVILLE – Optimism abounded as Blackburn College broke ground on a new, state-of-the-art solar project in a ceremony on campus Thursday afternoon, May 16.
The $3 million, 2-megawatt solar array, which will be constructed on eight acres of the northern part of the Blackburn campus, is expected to provide over 80% of the school’s energy needs.
A crowd of dignitaries attended the two-part event, which began with a welcome in the Mahan Science Wing before continuing outside at the construction site for the ceremonial ground-breaking.
“The solar farm is such a good example of one of Blackburn’s core values, self-sufficiency,” said Blackburn President Julie Murray-Jensen. “Blackburn prides itself on taking care of our community, and this is one more way we can practice and honor this spirit.
“Blackburn is a leader in sustainability,” she added. “We’re deeply committed to innovation, and what benefits our students and the college. We’ve set the bar high.”
The ground-breaking was the latest step in a project that has spanned over two years. The cost of the project is partially covered by renewable energy credits from the Illinois Power Agency.
Blackburn also received assistance from the Central Illinois Economic Development Authority, the city of Carlinville, United Community Bank, and the Illinois Power Agency.
Murray-Jensen credited Blackburn board member Cress Maddox, Vice-President of Finance and Administration Steve Morris, and Physical Plant Director Sam Harding with doing “a lot of heavy lifting to champion the idea. They applied for the program and related funding, and now work with partners on the site work, installation, and eventual maintenance and oversight.”
“I’m very excited about this project,” said Morris. “It’s been two years in the making, and this project has a 25-year lifespan. It’s exciting to know that eighty percent of our energy needs will be taken care of for that long.”
The array was purchased from IL-Solar, a Litchfield firm, with tax-exempt bond proceeds.
The campus currently uses 3.6 kilowatts of power annually. The solar array will provide 3.1 kilowatts, and generate $125,000 in annual savings after project expenses. That is a 60 percent savings on utility costs, Blackburn’s second-largest expense behind payroll.
David Ronen, the president of IL-Solar, said the project would create $1.5 million in energy credits for Blackburn. “This is one of the largest, if not the largest, solar projects on a college in Illinois,” said Ronen, who referred to the Blackburn array as his company’s “showpiece.”
“We’ve done 400 projects, and have around 300 more to come,” remarked Ronen. “I’ve spent more time on this project than any I’ve ever done.”
He noted the impact of the Future Energy Jobs Act, passed by the Illinois legislature in 2017, as well as the Act on Energy program of Ameren Illinois for the impetus of the rebirth of solar energy in the state.
Construction on the array is expected to begin immediately. Some 770 posts will be installed to support 5,546 solar panels in eleven rows.
Ronen said the array could be energized in late July or August. Though the lifespan of the project is 25 years, Ronen believes that the array could last for as many as fifty to one hundred years.
Students from Blackburn will take an active role in the support and maintenance of the array as part of the school’s nationally recognized, student-managed Work Program. The project will use pollinator plantings as ground cover, a reflection of the school’s support of the bee population on campus and in the area.
The interest in bees has itself created a wave of publicity in recent years for Blackburn, which maintains a separate pollinator garden and several hives for study and research.
Murray-Jensen also pointed to the academic impact of the array at Blackburn, particularly in the biology department.
“The solar farm reflects Blackburn’s commitment to sustainability,” remarked Murray-Jensen. “Blackburn has recently been designated a Bee Campus USA as well as a Tree Campus USA, and supports a walnut grove, hummingbird feeders, and pollinator efforts across the campus. The solar project is one more example of how our faculty, staff, and students have championed nature and our environment.”