TC3 Solar: Humble Beginnings for an Impressive Array

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Tompkins Weekly        7-26-23

By Dan Antonioli

If you live in Upstate New York, chances are you’ve seen one of the many solar farms in our rural landscapes. Such a solar farm has a large presence at Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) and it’s one of the first things you notice when you drive onto the main campus in the Town of Dryden—ten acres of photovoltaics stand proud! As a resident of Dryden, student at TC3, and solar energy advocate, I wanted to find out more about this impressive array, as well as the others that are visible on campus.

The solar farm is part of a larger five array configuration, with three at the Dryden campus, one at the TC3 Farm, and one on the Cortland satellite building. (An “array” is a collection of solar panels that function as a single unit.) TC3’s first system was a small 2,000 watt array on the West side of the main campus building (see pic) for research and development purposes to see how solar worked and if it was a viable means of generating onsite electricity. TC3 also wanted to move in a green direction and fulfill the President’s Climate Commitment it made in March of 2008. Solar makes sense, but would it work at TC3?

A large array of solar panels across from Bahar Drive near the main campus building. Photo by Dan Antolioni.

With global interest in solar growing at an exponential rate and TC3 focusing on energy upgrades and increasing campus efficiency, the timing was right for Solar One (a subsidiary of Smart Energy Capital, LLC) to show up and suggest a solar farm that would benefit TC3 by offsetting the campus energy bill and demonstrating a commitment to move in a sustainable direction. With a generous grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the system was installed at no cost to TC3; in other words, it was an offer they couldn’t refuse!

Solar One contracted with Borrego Solar to install the solar farm and Solar One has since operated and maintained the system. TC3, in turn, benefits from the electricity generation.

In 2013 the installation of the TC3 solar farm was completed with an impressive array of 8,676 panels. This amounts to an average annual savings of $30,000 and an offset of approximately 890 metric tons. Thus the onsite generation, cost savings, and reduced carbon footprint have moved TC3 in a sustainable direction.

Equally important is the overall reduction in energy consumption at the campus. Substantial energy upgrades were performed with each renovation and building additions as the campus complied with NY State’s energy efficiency requirements. (Generation and usage are two sides of the same coin.) Working in tandem, TC3’s multiple solar systems and energy efficiency have moved the campus towards Net Zero.


Solar electric generation usually maintains an even output, with a small gradual decline over time and most panels rated for peak performance up to around 20 years and roughly 80% performance at 30-40 years. But usage is another matter. With expansions there is more usage, but there is also a higher degree of efficiency as buildings meet new energy codes. And student enrollment means differing degrees of usage, with Covid dramatically reducing on-site class attendance.

So while the five solar arrays offset usage by as much as 90%, the equation of Net Zero is a moving target. This and the fact that TC3 uses natural gas for heating and cafeteria cooking means that additional steps will need to be taken in order to become a “solar powered campus” or that it has achieved Net Zero Energy as is popularized in the media and talked about extensively at gatherings like COP27.

The TC3 solar arrays are a large step in the direction of Net Zero, and reducing the overall carbon footprint of TC3 is a notable achievement. The future is green and TC3 is heading that way!

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