07 August 2012
From SolarOne Solution’s high-powered LEDs in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s custom bike shelter to Mage Solar modules powering Western Michigan University’s 50kW electric vehicle test project to a solar farm atop the UK’s University of Sheffield, solar installations on college campuses are a bright idea, from both an educational and business standpoint.
Some colleges such as Arizona State University (ASU) have set renewable energy goals, and generating solar energy can help them reach these targets. ASU’s include generating 20MW of solar energy by 2014. As of 31 December 2011, the school generated 14.5MW.
Furthermore, solar installations on campuses are more likely to be supported by the campus community, whereas neighbors may oppose PV systems in other communities, says Paul Rowland, executive director, Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. “Probably the most important value of installing solar on a campus is that there are educational advantages in that campuses are likely to engage their community in educational efforts regarding the installation,” Rowland says.
Plus, it allows colleges to practice what they preach to students about sustainability and being responsible citizens, says Washington and Lee University President Kenneth P. Ruscio. The Lexington, Virginia (US)-based school boasts the largest PV system in the state, and totals 450kW at two separate locations on the University's campus.
While most solar systems on US college campuses are owned and supplied by the utility under a solar power purchase agreement (PPA), Australia doesn’t have a similar rebate system. Instead, schools have to buy and build their own solar system, or buy green energy from the grid at a premium price, says Geoff Dennis, Deputy Director, Property & Facilities Division at the University of Queensland.
The University of Queensland has a 1.22MW system at its St. Lucia campus in Brisbane (see photo) generates electricity for the campus and underpins research projects in physics, economics and sustainability.
“What’s driving this?” Dennis asks. “Obviously climate change.”
But there’s an economic argument as well and it appeals to educational institutions and solar companies. Since 2011, 15 US colleges have installed solar projects over the size of 1MW for a total of more than 33MW in total capacity, according to AASHE. An 8MW installation at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, New Jersey (US), is believed to be the largest distributed solar system on a college campus in the US, and expected to save the college more than $1 million in energy costs per year.
Stacey Hughes, Chief Financial Officer at SunLight General Capital, is working with Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA) to lease the system for 15 years, selling energy to the college. The school pays no capital costs upfront, and these savings are vitally important in a time when college and universities are cutting their budgets.
“Colleges are very short on capital these days, and energy is a top line-item that institutions have to bear,” she says, adding that the developer sells the school the solar power at a discounted rate, “often as much as 30%, 40%, 50% of what they would pay to a utility. Not only is the upfront savings very important to colleges, but it’s a 15- or 20-year contract. They know what their costs are going to be for a long time, which is a big help for budgeting.”
The campus market
From the solar developer’s perspective, the size alone makes campuses attractive sites.
“Most colleges have pretty extensive parking lots, pretty extensive roofs, so you can get to critical mass of size,” Hughes says. “Secondly, schools and colleges don’t tend to pick up and move. Businesses and residential make 15-year contracts more difficult. Schools are high up the list in terms of how long they’ll be there, and they are a good credit risk. They do pay their bills.”
So as long as the sun keeps shining, everybody wins.
Written by Jessica Lyons Hardcastle, News Editor, Solar Novus Today