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Real-time Solar Tracker

Solar panels installed on the roof of the UVA Bookstore

New online tool tracks UVA’s solar energy production in real-time

The amount of sunlight that hits the earth's surface every hour contains enough energy to power the whole planet for a year. The University of Virginia is working to harness this power, reducing its reliance on fossil fuel-generated electricity and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.

UVA has launched an online tool that uses real-time data to help students, faculty, staff and the community stay up to date on the University’s progress towards a robust renewable energy portfolio. About 1,700 solar panels were installed on Grounds this past year, including rooftop systems on the UVA Bookstore, Clemons Library, Ruffner Hall and Skipwith Hall.

The Renewable Energy Tracker website highlights the current energy production on all of these panels, which totals close to 700,000 kilowatt hours of solar energy production to date, enough to power approximately 70 homes for a year.

Crew member from Altenergy Inc. installs a solar panel

UVA Facilities Management teams — including the Office for Sustainability, Power & Light, Metering & Billing and Technology & Innovation — worked together to create this online tool to raise awareness of the University’s investment in solar energy production, the environmental savings resulting from these initiatives and to support learning opportunities for students, faculty and staff.

The Power & Light team manages and maintains power generation and distribution on Grounds, including the University-owned solar panels, while the Metering & Billing team installs and maintains physical meters that track energy use and the consumption of utilities, including electricity, oil, natural gas and water. Over 80 percent of the 1,300 physical meters installed on Grounds are connected to University building automation systems, allowing for continuous reading and trend recording of data to help support the University’s energy management and sustainability goals.

Meters installed on the rooftop solar panels and within the corresponding buildings track the production of solar power as well as the electric demand fed from the panels. (While some of these panels and the energy they produce are owned by UVA, others are leased to Dominion Virginia Power and the energy they produce goes to the grid, not to UVA buildings directly.) Metering & Billing and Technology & Innovation staff worked together to create specific meter configurations and database tables to collect the data from the panels and continuously update it on the Renewable Energy Tracker website every minute.

In an effort to understand the full impact of UVA’s solar production, the Office for Sustainability created data conversions tracking the equivalent environmental savings of the solar panels. To date, the panels have resulted in more than 300 metric tons of carbon dioxide avoided, which is the equivalent of almost 50,000 gallons of water saved or more than 400 barrels of crude oil not used.

The more than 160 sustainability-related courses at the University are able to use the data of the panels’ energy output and overall performance to support their study and potential research opportunities surrounding the use of renewable energy. UVA Facilities Management employees regularly host tours of the solar panels for the University community, including recent tours for groups of electrical engineering students and staff interested in sustainability topics.

Over the past year, Office for Sustainability, Geospatial Engineering Services and Power & Light teams worked in partnership with students from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to evaluate the rooftops of all 500-plus buildings on Grounds for their solar energy potential. The Roofing team is exploring new ventures in the support of the University’s rooftop solar ambitions, as well as new technologies which can be installed in-house and allow life extension of certain roof systems. This rooftop analysis is being translated into a phasing plan to install additional solar panels, annually increasing the amount of renewable energy on Grounds.

In an effort to keep costs down by increasing the number of solar panels installed in-house by UVA staff, two University employees recently earned the industry’s top certification through the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). The NABCEP PV Installation Professional certification is widely recognized as the “gold standard” for renewable energy professionals and is required of all contractors installing solar arrays on Grounds.

In addition to on-Grounds solar projects, the University has entered into power purchase agreements with Dominion to purchase the output of two new utility-scale solar power projects. When completed, these projects will generate enough solar power to offset 21 percent of UVA’s electricity demand and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Renewable Energy Tracker site was designed to allow for the incorporation of all of these future installations as well as the tracking of other renewable energy systems, such as wind turbines.

Learn more about UVA and Dominion Power’s solar collaboration »

About the author

Jane Centofante
Communications senior generalist
UVA Facilities Management
(434) 982-5846