Energy in the landscape: turning a solar array on a US college campus into land art
The quest to shape a post-carbon future is underscored by a growing reliance on renewable energy generation, such as wind turbines and photovoltaic panels. Yet despite their impeccable green credentials, there are still issues of how these often very large and intrusive structures are integrated within the landscape. A new project for a large solar array on an American college campus shows that it’s possible to conjure poetry out of a challenging, functional terrain.
In partnership with the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the University at Buffalo plans to build a new solar array on its North Campus in upstate New York. Five thousand photovoltaic panels will generate energy for 735 student apartments, making it one of the largest solar arrays in the US, and reducing the university’s carbon emissions by 500 metric tonnes a year. The initiative is a key element in the NYPA’s US$21 million (£14.6 million) renewable energy programme. The NYPA will fund the US$7.5 million (£5.2 million) project.
But how to implant an immense swarm of photovoltaic panels in the campus landscape? Rather than seeing it as an intrusion, the university envisaged the array as a piece of land art and staged an international competition on that basis. From three finalists, California-based artist and landscape designer Walter Hood has been chosen to implement his proposal.
Hood calls his concept the Solar Strand, a direct allusion to the powerful linear quality of the landscape, but also, indirectly, to the way pairs of molecules entwine to form DNA.
With panels arranged in irregular bands contained in a long narrow strip, Hood’s winning design resembles the linear pattern of a DNA fingerprint, the genetic code to all human life. ‘And,’ says Hood, ‘like a DNA fingerprint, solar panels would be codified and arranged to show how much power is captured or generated, and where it is used.’
The proposal reinforces existing drainage patterns to create a new ‘patch ecology’ that merges with the existing creeks and campus woodlands.
‘The array is the centrepiece of a hybrid landscape that years ago was a wetland,’ Hood explains, describing the project as a place where ‘water and light merge, harnessing nature’s energy from sunlight and hydrological infiltration.’
Delicate striations of grasses aligned with the array reinforce its linear geometry and recall the site’s agricultural past. Social ‘rooms’, providing spaces for contemplation and interaction, break through the array at three points. In Hood’s vision, the demands of energy use form the basis for a surprising, lyrical topography. Construction is scheduled to begin in August.