Schools Use More Green Power

To be climate change leaders, more needs to be done

Even as higher education institutions face tough financial times and budgeting decisions, many are making sustainability, energy efficiency and renewable generation part of their long-term plans.

Over time, we expect that focus to increase. With 20 million students and more than five billion square feet of floor space, the U.S. higher education sector has a lot of potential in this area.

The schools spend an estimated $14 billion annually on energy, the government says. Much can be saved, as some institutions have already demonstrated. What’s more, students care about whether schools are “green” and it can be a powerful recruiting tool. A Princeton Review survey, for instance, found that 61 percent of students valued knowing about a school’s commitment to the environment.

Many institutions have long worked on conservation. There’s also been a substantial focus on decreasing carbon footprints by purchasing “green” energy, such as wind, or by purchasing renewable energy certificates from green producers to offset carbon footprints.

That is often the case for the EPA’s Top 30 College & University green power leaders. The University of Pennsylvania, which heads this year’s recently published list, is the nation’s number one purchaser of wind power among all colleges and universities, the EPA notes. The university gets 54 percent of its electricity from wind.

Overall, the combined use of the top 30 amounted to nearly 2 billion kilowatt-hours of green power annually. That is equivalent to the electricity needed to power more than 181,000 average American homes, the EPA says.

Fewer schools are making gains in producing their own renewable electricity.

Cost is often the limiting factor. While the cost of solar and wind installations, for instance, continue to drop, it can still take years to recoup initial investments. In many states, public universities may also face a paradox. If they implement an energy upgrade that saves money, the state government may reduce their funding the next year by an equal amount, the Environmental Defense Fund has found.

Still, some schools are making gains with renewable energy generation. Some are even finding it financially feasible, often with the use of federal or state incentives.

On Rutgers University’s Livingston campus, a 3,500-spot parking lot is outfitted with solar panels. They produce the equivalent of enough power for 1,000 homes. The school used a combination of federal tax incentives and state solar renewable energy credits  for the project. University officials expect to save $28 million over 20 years.

Other schools have grabbed headlines with renewable energy generation, too, including:

  • The University of California at Davis. Last year, it dedicated a new 16.3-megawatt solar power plant which is expected to generate 14 percent of the campus' electricity needs. At the time, the school noted that it was the largest solar installation in the UC system and the largest "behind the meter" solar plant on a U.S. college campus off-setting electricity demand.
  • Colorado State. It leads colleges and universities in sustainability best practices, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) says. The association’s 2016 Greenest Colleges list notes that the school is home to the first solar-heated/air-conditioned on-campus building.
  • Green Mountain College in Vermont. Among other green power initiatives, 85 percent of the campus’ heat and hot water comes from a $5.8 million on site biomass plant. It burns locally sourced wood chips for fuel, AASHE says.
  • Arizona State University. It now has one of the country's largest distributed solar systems, providing the university with more than 24 megawatts of power, AASHE notes.
  • The University of Missouri. In 2014, it got almost 25 percent of its power from on-site generated renewables, including biomass, solar and wind, the university says.
  • Carleton College in Minnesota. It receives about 30 percent of its annual electricity from a wind turbine installed in 2011, the college reports. Its first turbine, installed in 2004, serves an equivalent amount to the public grid.
Many look to schools to lead

For years, campus sustainability has been a popular cause among students. Yet, total energy usage on campuses has barely declined.

An analysis of energy use and carbon emissions data from 343 U.S. colleges and universities found that energy usage per square foot was down just 2 percent between 2007 and 2014, indicates a recent report from Sightlines and the University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute.

At the same time, carbon emissions per square foot of building space declined 13 percent, largely because of a switch from coal and oil to natural gas, the report said.

The total decline in emissions for the institutions was about 5 percent. That drop was roughly in line with other industries.

The report, the first of its kind in the higher ed community, was based on a study of 1.5 billion square feet of campus facilities.

“If we in higher ed truly want to be national leaders in tackling climate change, a continued shift to clean—ideally renewable—energy is obviously vital,” said Jennifer Andrews, project director for the UNH Sustainability Institute.

We tend to agree with that sentiment. We also suspect that the day will come when all industries are more focused on renewables, if only because their consumers and constituents demand it.

In future blogs, we’ll look closer at tax and other incentives that have, and will likely continue, to help schools construct renewable energy production.

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