Renewable U: College Campuses Invest in Renewable Energy0

Brita Belli | Tue Sep 25 2012

Over the summer, crews at Rutgers University’s Livingston Campus began transforming a 32-acre, 3,500-spot parking lot into one of the largest solar canopy arrays in the nation. The array will have a capacity of 8 megawatts, enough to power 1,000 homes.

The canopy is more than just eco window dressing – Antonio Calcado, Rutgers vice president for facilities and capital planning, expects that with the financing structure, grants and energy credits, the investment will return about $28 million to the university over the next 20 years. A previous solar project had a similarly rapid payback.

“Combined with the electricity we produce, it’s a winner all around,” says Calcado. “We’re an institution of higher learning—we teach this stuff—so we should also lead by example. It’s a living laboratory in many respects.”

Sustainability report cards

Like Rutgers, colleges across the nation are increasingly competing to cut their carbon footprints with attention-grabbing projects.

We’re an institution of higher learning, so we should also lead by example

Many have now invested in wind turbines, but Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, was the first to erect a utility-scale 1.65 MW turbine on a college campus in 2004 and tracks day-to-day data from its turbine online. The turbine provides 40 percent of campus electricity and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by over 4,300 tons in addition to serving as an invaluable learning tool, particularly for physics classes.

While there are several outlets that quantify which schools are the greenest, including the College Sustainability Report Card and green rankings from the Princeton Review, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates schools by renewable energy usage alone.

Western Washington University tops that list by producing from wind power slightly more energy than it uses.

Renewable incentives

Rutgers has been pushing renewable energy projects for years. In 2009, the school completed the largest solar farm on a college campus—a ground installation with more than 7,000 panels producing 1.4 MW, or 11 percent of the campus’ energy needs.

The Livingston campus project is being installed by Sundurance Energy in seven sections—five of which are complete. The solar canopies represent a unique partnership between the school, the solar company and Key Equipment Finance. Rutgers needed to take advantage of a treasury grant from the state of New Jersey which would provide for 30 percent of the cost of the installation, but couldn’t as a nonprofit. So the school sold their rights to Key while maintaining the ability to keep all of the electricity generated by the panels, and all of the revenue earned from their Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs).

SRECs provide a sort of solar currency in New Jersey—for every 1,000 kilowatt-hours an installation generates, the owner gets one SREC. These accumulate in an electronic account and can be sold to electric providers as a way to earn revenue from the panels for the first 15 years of a project’s life. This program and other state incentives have made New Jersey a solar leader, second only to California when it comes to solar installations.

Western Washington University produces more wind power than the campus uses

Thanks to SRECs, that ground-mounted solar facility will be paid off in just four years.

When the solar canopies are running at full capacity, the two systems will meet 60 percent of the campus’ energy needs. And as Calcado notes, having panels over parking lots protects the lots (and cars) from the elements and will make snow removal a much smaller job. “Basically we’re just plowing lanes now because a lot of the snow just melts off of these panels,” he says.

Cutting the carbon footprint

Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, has begun construction on the second stage of what will be the nation’s largest geothermal system.  The ground-source heat-pump system—which will provide super efficient heating and cooling for the campus’ 5.5 million square feet—involves the drilling of 3,600 boreholes, the installation of two 2,500-ton heat pump chillers and a hot water loop. The geothermal project will allow the school to transition away from four coal-fired boilers and when complete in 2014 will cut the school’s carbon footprint in half.

“When costs began to escalate for the installation of a new fossil fuel burning boiler, the university began to evaluate other renewable energy options,” said Jim Lowe, director of engineering, construction and operations at Ball State, in a press statement.

Top image: A rendering of the Rutgers solar canopy. Courtesy Rutgers University.