University at Buffalo unveils DNA-shaped "Solar Strand"

Apr 23, 2012

New solar panels at the University at Buffalo double as an art installation. 

The $7.5 million project, funded by the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and SUNY, will power student apartments while sprucing up the landscape.

When viewed from the sky, the strand of solar panels resembles DNA - a tip of the hat to UB's strengths in research and science.

NYPA and SUNY took on the solar project during stark financial times. Walter Hood, the renowned California landscape architect who designed the "Solar Strand," says that shows a willingness on the part of New York State to take a risk.

"That means you have to be very optimistic and you have to have faith in an idea, not something that you know," Hood said Monday. "This is something that Americans, I think we're getting better at - being optimistic again, being able to go into the future and not know what we're going to get."

The 3,200-panel strand will power student apartments on UB's North Campus. Originally, plans called for 5,000 panels. The project was scaled back to fit within the fixed cost of the $7.5 million grant from NYPA.

University officials say the panels will keep 400 tons of greenhouse gases a year from entering the atmosphere. Still, that would move UB only slightly towards its stated goal of carbon neutrality by 2030.

The installation had a "triple bottom line," says UB campus architect Robert Shibley.

"That's the jargon for any single action that can deliver to the community, deliver to the ecology and deliver to the economy at the same time with one gesture," Shibley says.

More than 40 local companies worked on the project during the three years it took to complete.

"We successfully engaged the services of nearly 40 western New York companies from landscaping to electrical engineering, welding, paving, concrete work, installation services," said Paul Belnick, a senior vice president at NYPA. "These companies - employing hundreds of local residents - contributed to the successful realization of this visually-striking and energy-saving project."

The solar panels will generate 750 kilowatts of electricity and save UB about $60,000 a year, according to university officials.

The strand will need to operate at that capacity for 125 years to recoup the original cost of the project.