“Peacock Power” has long been a common mantra among Upper Iowa University students and alumni. Molly Doran ’20, Cory Thielen ’16, Chase Grabau ’17 and Logan Wood ’18 aim to give the term new meaning with another source of power at Fayette Campus. All four Peacock alumni had an important role in a 684-array solar project that recently took shape near the University’s Peacock Arts and Athletic Center (PAAC). Doran laid the foundation for the project, while Thielen, Grabau and Wood helped install the arrays.
The solar project, reviewed by the UIU Board of Trustees Infrastructure Committee in May 2020, is expected to generate approximately 70% of the electricity demand of the PAAC and Harms-Eischeid football stadium. In addition to long-term utility savings, an estimated 8,814 tons of carbon dioxide will be eliminated from the University’s carbon footprint over the life of the system. This is equivalent to planting 205,366 trees or burning 4,294.3 tons of coal.
Doran is credited with spurring action on the project. Prior to receiving her Bachelor of Science degree in May 2020, the Wheaton, Illinois, native chose to investigate renewable energy options available to UIU as her Csomay Honors project.
“I benefited so much from the Csomay Honors Program and the total UIU experience, and I knew I wanted to pursue a project that would have a positive effect on UIU, the Fayette community and the environment,” Doran said. “Being an accounting and financial management double major, I knew that there are monetary and environmental benefits in using renewable energy.”
Doran initially explored wind power with personnel involved with the Luther College and Kirkwood Community College wind turbine projects in Decorah and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, respectfully. While the remote landscape and wind speeds of northeast Iowa are suitable for turbines, Doran discovered that, without substantial support from grants and donations, the financial burden of such a project would be too great for UIU to manage.
Returning to square one, she looked into other renewable energy resources and decided upon solar due to its popularity and potential financial feasibility. After talking to UIU Tutor Center manager Markus Hawes, who has solar panels installed on the roof of his Fayette home, Doran contacted a representative from Eagle Point Solar in Dubuque, Iowa.
Founded in 2010, Eagle Point Solar provides renewable solar energy solutions throughout Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. The company designs, engineers and builds systems of all sizes for residential homes, small businesses, large commercial facilities, agricultural operations, local government, academic institutions and local utilities.
With the assistance of Eagle Point Solar energy consultant Tyler Billmeyer, Doran examined the Fayette Campus electric bill. Doran explained that the University’s electric provider, Alliant Energy, has different rate codes based on the amount of energy that is used. When a large entity, such as UIU, uses over 75,000 kilowatt-hours of energy they are billed a demand-type rate. The customer is billed according to the highest 15 minutes as a demand charge, which is 50% of their bill. UIU has many meters, and a number of them are in the demand-type rate code.
“In order to take full advantage of what the solar panels have to offer, a customer needs to be able to offset enough energy to get out of the demand-type rate code,” Doran said. “Upper Iowa has meters that far exceed the 75,000 kWh threshold, where solar panels would just not be feasible. So the challenge was finding meters where installing solar panels would bring Upper Iowa out of the demand-type rate code and eliminate the demand fee, or finding meters where the kWh usage was significant but solar panels could seriously reduce the cost.”
After further examining the different meters, Eagle Point representatives found two meters where solar panels could help cost reduction most — the PAAC and Harms-Eischeid Stadium. Both locations record their highest energy usage months in January, February and December. In months like May through August, the solar panels would produce more energy than the two facilities typically use. This extra energy would be sent back to UIU’s electrical provider, Alliant Energy, for a credit per kilowatt-hour. This would help offset costs for months when enough energy is not produced.
“My study concluded that the proposed solar array would provide immediate savings and is expected to pay for itself in less than 10 years, not to mention the environmental benefits the project provides,” Doran said. “It will also be a great opportunity for environmental science majors to experience how solar panels work and the benefits they provide their owners, like UIU.”
Peacocks on point
To achieve the desired financials and to mitigate as much risk as possible in the solar array’s construction, UIU chose to participate in a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). The PPA allows the University to have the solar panels installed at no upfront cost. A third-party financier paid for the construction of the solar arrays and is responsible for the insurance and maintenance of them through a 20-year term agreement. Through this arrangement, UIU anticipates savings of approximately $6,080 in utility expenses during the first year of service and an estimated $607,155 over the next 20 years.
PPA rates sometimes come with a risk; if the PPA rate increases at a rate faster than the utility rate increase, UIU could end up paying more for their electricity. To mitigate this risk, Eagle Point Solar proposed a PPA rate with no accelerator over the term of the agreement. The average utility rate increase was 3.78% annually over the last 25 years. However, when evaluating the increase in utility rates, a person must look at the entire bill, not just the base rate. Although history cannot always predict the future, it is safe to assume that utility rates will rise some over the next 20 years. With a flat PPA rate that doesn’t increase over time, there is an assurance that the University will see savings through the term of the agreement.
Following a feasibility study and the project’s approval, installation of the solar array in an open area just east of the PAAC was handed over to the employees of Eagle Point Solar. Onsite construction began the week of September 13, 2020, and was coordinated by solar installation technician crew leader and UIU alumnus Thielen. The Dubuque, Iowa, native oversaw a team that included solar installation technician crew leader Grabau and solar installation technician Wood — all of whom graduated with bachelor’s degrees from UIU’s conservation management program.
“We always talked in school about how fun it would be if we worked together after we graduated,” Thielen said. “I felt this project was a really special opportunity for the three of us to help bring solar power to Fayette Campus. I not only received an outstanding education there, but it is also where I first met my wife, Christina (Neil ’16). UIU has definitely provided me some great memories in my life.”
A transfer from Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa, Thielen enjoyed the hands-on approach to the UIU conservation management program, which featured a number of outdoor labs and research projects. He noted that UIU’s fast-paced curriculum required him to stay focused and organized, skills that translated well to his current duties.
“I’ve always loved hard work, being outdoors and promoting our natural resources,” Thielen said. “I like the fact that my crew and I are helping our customers save money, but what I enjoy the most about working at Eagle Point Solar is that we are helping save our planet.”
Similar to Thielen, Wood and Grabau also transferred to UIU, coming from Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“I chose to attend UIU because of the number of transfer credits they accepted,” said Wood, who grew up in Waukon, Iowa. “My UIU education provided me with the resources to be successful, and the opportunity to work alongside friends at Eagle Point allows us to share our success stories, such as the UIU solar array project. We are each productive in what we do and work to achieve similar outcomes. I knew the UIU project would go well and we would be able to maintain a very aesthetic looking array on campus.”
“The relationship that UIU has with Kirkwood allowed me to easily transfer credits, and the professors were the best part of my education after I arrived here,” Grabau added. “I was inspired to succeed in each and every class by educators who exert a true passion for their coursework. Their dedication and my overall UIU experience provided me a continued growth in learning, leadership skills and a love for the outdoors.”
A native of Robins, Iowa, Grabau applied for employment at Eagle Point Solar after having it recommended to him by Thielen. In addition to the opportunity to work outside, Grabau was interested in the growth of the solar industry.
“Knowing that these solar arrays provide efficient power to resident and company budgets pleases me, but I really enjoy the people I work with,” Grabau said. “My connection to UIU made the installation of the array here very cool, but Logan and Cory have been my good friends since I attended classes here. They are extremely professional at what they do, and I am fortunate to work alongside them.”
Project becomes reality
Now attending graduate school at the Mendoza School of Business at the University of Notre Dame, Doran has accepted a position with Ernst and Young upon her graduation from the prestigious business school. In early October, the UIU alumna took advantage of a Fayette Campus trip to visit with a few former Peacock soccer teammates to see her fellow alumni and others complete the solar array installation.
“From start to finish, the project was definitely an eye-opening experience,” Doran said. “I not only learned a lot about renewable energy, solar panels and ways to reduce cost, but also about time management and how to communicate with different individuals. It was awesome to see it all turn into reality, and to know that the solar array will be beneficial to both Upper Iowa and the environment makes it that much more special.”
(Editor’s note: Chase Grabau was previously featured in The Bridge in 2017. A recipient of the Myrle Burk Scholarship, Grabau worked with UIU assistant professor of biology Dr. Paul Skrade alongside wildlife researcher Jon Stravers to study avian species of conservation concern. The story can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3mahCqW.)