Campus hydroplant to provide 40 more years of renewable power

Campus Sustainability Office December 6, 2021
A group gathers next to Beebe Lake to celebrate the hydroplant relicensing
A celebration in October 2021 to mark the relicensing drew campus staff, students, and faculty, remarks on the history of renewable energy development at the hydroplant | Photo: Campus Sustainability Office

Cornell’s oldest renewable energy system – the campus hydroelectric plant located on Beebe Lake - has been approved for another forty years of clean energy production after a successful five year recertification process.

As a power producing plant, the hydroplant is required to regularly submit documentation for a license to operate to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  The most recent recertification process took over five years, and included an environmental assessment, public review period, project safety overview, operational and environmental considerations, and analysis of the water and river basin.

Frank Perry, the campus hydroplant manager, said the relicensing experience was made possible with the help of consultant HDR Inc., who helped keep work focused and guided Cornell's team through strategic decisions for a successful license renewal. 

"The... relicensing process had multiple interactions with near 60 State and local agencies," he noted. "That required a high level of coordination and collaboration to make sure all deadlines were met." 

A legacy of clean power

“We are proud to continue Cornell’s legacy of renewable energy leadership and have secured our campus hydroplant as part of our carbon neutrality path for the future,” said Bert Bland, associate vice president of energy & sustainability.

In addition to avoiding the use of fossil fuels on campus, the hydroplant is environmentally friendly in other ways.  The plant is "run of river", meaning no water is stored as part of operation and instead continues to flow through the dam around the clock.

Upgrades to the plant's efficiency have increased plant production to 3-3.5% of the campus’ annual energy needs.  A real-time energy dashboard shows the output of this and other campus energy systems.

Renewable energy today

Over 20% of annual campus electricity comes from the combined renewable energy of the hydroplant and Cornell solar projects, though solar production regularly matches 100% of campus demand on sunny days year-round. 

A hydroplant has been providing the campus with renewable energy since its founding. Documents from Ezra Cornell show an early investment in utilizing natural water as part of his vision for campus power.   When the University opened in 1868, the Board of Trustees approved a water wheel and pumps for a cost of $1,500 (equivalent to $33,000 today).

Just a few years later, Cornell engineers added a water-powered dynamo, the first hydroelectric facility in Fall Creek, making Cornell likely the first college campus with hydroelectric power.

Cables were strung from the Fall Creek wheelhouse to the Engineering buildings on the north end of the Arts Quad. At the time, the area around Sibley Hall was filled with small machine shops and workshops, with the Foundry being the only structure remaining today.

Today, the hydroplant is part of the campus district energy system which provides power to the entire campus.