Higher Education and Solar Energy: A Partnership Whose Time Has Come

Whether public or private, institutions of higher education have developed with a mission to serve society and the greater good. Our youth attend colleges and universities to learn, grow and develop as they prepare for adulthood, facing the world’s challenges and opportunities. The college experience is immersive, with learning and growth occurring both in and out of the classroom. The cost of this education has grown and continues climbing, making the subject of “affordability” equally popular in the media and at kitchen tables across the country.  

While the primary focus in higher education is on curriculum, faculty, research and other functions take place inside buildings. Campus facilities are one of the largest fixed costs they have, and volatile energy prices are a large and growing budget item. Colleges spend 85 percent of their energy on lighting and heating, and exponential energy demands of additional computer processing are quickly adding to these costs. Depending on what study you read, typical higher education buildings average around 50,000 square feet and each use more than $100,000 of energy annually.

At campuses across the country, a few early adopters took the lead with solar projects demonstrating how the technology worked predictably and reliably. Unfortunately, many of these projects were not economic, but rather showpieces or research opportunities. While well intentioned, these initiatives resulted in the mistaken view held by institutional decision makers that solar projects are a nice (but unaffordable) “luxury.” This perspective is no longer accurate, as technological progress has combined with innovative financing and large-scale manufacturing to usher us into an era of economically viable solar projects. We must get the word out that large-scale solar can be deployed cost-effectively today on campuses across the country. 

Many administrators are not aware of a critical development in deploying clean energy: the majority of modern campus solar projects are built with no capital outlay from the institution. The most popular way institutions are making the shift to clean energy is with solar projects financed by private investors seeking to earn a “clean return” developing and owning these modern power plants. Private investors are able to harvest tax credits that are unavailable to non-taxable institutions, and their investments are repaid by selling clean energy back to the campus over time. In return for “hosting” privately financed solar power plants on rooftops, fields or covered parking areas, colleges are able to purchase clean energy for less than they paid for conventional power. These long-term contracts offer an additional benefit as they replace the volatility and inflation of electricity prices with a predictable locked in rate for 20-30 years.

Currently more than 800 colleges or universities across the country offset a portion of their energy costs with some sort of solar array. While that is a tremendous step in the right direction, it leaves more than 2,000 colleges or universities that are still powering their campuses with expensive, unpredictable and dirty energy. We are just at the beginning of this journey, and we need to accelerate the progress.

In solar, the economies of scale of larger projects is impressive on both impact and savings. After testing the waters with a few smaller demonstration projects, Denison University recently installed a large solar farm spread over 350 acres at the edge of its Central Ohio campus. This 2.3-MW array comprised of 6,750 panels turns Ohio’s average annual sunshine into enough power to cut the university’s use of conventional electricity by 15 percent. Those operating cost reductions are only part of the picture.

While solar energy reduces a university’s carbon footprint, a larger and more important environmental impact results from the education of students on alternative energy and the demonstration of how viable it has become. Whether being exposed to it in ancillary classes or simply seeing it deployed in a large scale on campus, students don’t have to major in environmental science to learn from and appreciate the importance of renewable energy. As tomorrow’s leaders experience solar energy in use, they take this knowledge with them out into the world, accelerating deployment of solar elsewhere.

Many colleges may not fully appreciate the added value solar brings to the overall student experience, and its impacts on enrollment and achievement. Depending on what Princeton review survey you prefer, between 50 to 60 percent of incoming college students want to attend an environmentally responsible university. Having modern facilities is an even higher priority. These trends are only increasing as colleges now court and recruit students from Generation Z. Walking the talk of campus sustainability is also a factor in attracting the very best faculty to these institutions. Green energy has become a powerful recruitment tool.

Smart solar also enhances academic and research opportunities. Returning to the Denison example, students and faculty have access to the performance and production data and the arrays themselves as they study and perform research. Denison already offers a dedicated course on renewable energy along with five other courses that touch on the subject. Because green energy is one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy, it is natural that colleges are offering hands-on learning opportunities with it. As graduates apply their green energy experience in these emerging fields, college recruiters and marketing departments are using alumnae success stories to attract new students. Green energy can be a snowball for academic success and institutional sustainability.

Our youth attend college to learn and grow; look back on how different you were as an 18-year old walking into your freshman dorm vs. the person walking out on graduation day. The time students spend on a college campus is the best opportunity renewable energy has to showcase the importance and accessibility of renewable energy in all types of applications. Young people understand environmental responsibility as a concept but need to see it put into action. Leaders in higher education and renewable energy have an obligation to students and citizens of the world to partner and educate the generation of tomorrow on just how viable renewable energy is.

Large-scale solar projects provide learning opportunities, attract students and faculty and reduce and control operating costs, all without requiring an upfront capital investment. Solar experts and leaders in higher education must work together to replace old and inaccurate assumptions about solar with up-to-date facts. On-campus clean energy is powerful, practical and economic, TODAY. Together, we can make the future brighter for all as we accelerate the shift to clean energy.

Lead image credit: Third Sun Solar

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Geoff Greenfield and Michelle Greenfield founded Third Sun Solar in 2000 out of their attic, after building their own sustainable home a few years prior on a piece of rural land that did not have access to utility power. With over 600 clean energy projects generating more than 11 MW of electricity throughout the country, Third Sun Solar is now the leading solar installer in Ohio and a top 100 installer in the US. In Third Sun Solar’s continuing efforts to use business as a force for good, it became a Certified Benefit Corporation in 2012.

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