Solar on college campuses: Here comes the sun

As part of higher ed comprehensive sustainability strategies, campus solar installations are on the rise
By: | Issue: May, 2017
April 19, 2017

Sometimes it becomes clear very early on that a facilities project—especially a solar initiative—will be complicated.

At Endicott College in Massachusetts, administrators looking into solar and other renewable energy technologies discovered several of the rooftops were too small to accommodate solar installation.

Planned renovations on other buildings meant solar panels would need to be removed and reinstalled, risking damage to the panels and interrupting solar power availability. And in terms of ground-mounted installations, shade from trees and other buildings limited the options.

“You need to be committed to finding an appropriate solution,” says Director of Sustainability Sarah Hammond Creighton.

The effort paid off: In 2014, Endicott installed a solar canopy over a 255-space parking lot. In 2016, the new hockey arena was designed to include solar panels on the roof.

Combined, the installations generate up to 12 million kilowatt hours (kWh) of power per year—about 10 percent of total campus energy use—at a price lower than the school pays for natural gas.

“It’s been saving us money since day one,” says Creighton, adding that the college obtained the panels for no money down through a leasing program.

The number of higher ed institutions converting a portion or even all of their energy use to solar is on the rise.

“Widespread and growing quickly” is how Julian Dautremont-Smith, director of programs for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), describes the trend.

The organization is aware of 330 institutions that have deployed more than 600 installations nationwide, with the total solar capacity in higher education at approximately 247,776 kilowatts.

But despite the sunny optimism about solar, “it’s still new to a lot of campuses and it can take a while to get stakeholders on board,” Dautremont-Smith says.

The challenges involve determining placement and choosing a funding option, and the rewards include cost savings and a visible show of sustainability.

Understanding the options

Switching to solar energy requires a number of important decisions, ranging from where the panels will be installed and which campus buildings will draw their power from the installation to how to cover the cost of the capital project.

At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the rooftop of the performing arts center was chosen for a 25kW installation for two reasons: It was a newer building with a roof that could accommodate the panels, and higher energy use within the performing arts center (compared to other campus buildings) meant the panels could have a bigger energy bill impact.

Energy use is often the biggest consideration in choosing which buildings will be switched to solar, says Endicott’s Creighton. But that doesn’t mean those projects always work out.

A new science building at William Paterson University in New Jersey uses more energy than other campus buildings, but there was not enough space on the rooftop for panels. The recreation building, another high-energy-use building, was a better choice, says Steve Bolyai, vice president of administration and finance.

A big factor was the size of the rooftop and its location next to a parking lot, where a combination of solar panels and a parking lot canopy could generate a significant amount of energy for the building.

Location and energy use are factors in determining whether (and where) solar makes sense. But cost is one of the biggest considerations—and potential roadblocks—in adopting solar.

State regulations, such as those in North Carolina, may limit how universities can fund installations.

At North Carolina State University, projects ranging from parking deck canopies and rooftop-mounted panels to solar pavilions and solar-umbrella charging stations have been funded through the sustainability fund (a student fee), legacy gifts, grants and donations.

While federal and state tax credits are often available to help reduce costs, nonprofit colleges cannot take advantage of the credits. That was the case when William Paterson University officials started exploring solar energy options a decade ago.

The lack of incentives left two options: Cover the $18 million cost for a 3 megawatt (MW) installation or partner with a private company through a Power Purchase Agreement, or PPA. PPAs are contracts between the companies that generate solar power and the organizations that use it.

The college receives a bill for its solar power use (from installations that could be on campus or located elsewhere) just like it would if the power was coming from a coal plant, yet at a reduced rate. Since the institution doesn’t own the equipment, there are no upfront costs.

William Paterson leaders signed a 15-year contract with Nautilus Solar in 2010 for a 3.5MW solar installation that includes rooftop panels on four buildings and canopies over five parking lots. The installation generates enough power to provide 20 percent of campus energy needs.

The PPA was a turnkey solution: New Jersey-based Nautilus Solar, which works on projects throughout North America, installed and maintains the panels (and also received the tax credits). The company sells solar power back to the college at a rate lower than nonrenewable energy.

Over the last six years, the university has saved $1.5 million in energy costs, says Bolyai.

Cost was just one of the factors in Endicott College’s decision to use a PPA to fund its solar installation.

“We looked at owning [the panels] but, as a college, it’s not within our expertise to run a solar array,” Creighton says. “It was a steep learning curve with a lot of regulations; investment aside, it required an expertise we don’t have.”

Shining a light on renewables

The University of Missouri-Kansas City funded the $100,000 solar installation on its performing arts center with the savings generated through other energy efficiency upgrades, such as upgrading its HVAC system from pneumatic to digital controls and installing LED lighting across campus.

The return for solar projects takes longer than for other energy efficiency upgrades. Director of Facilities Operations Randy Shingleton estimates the ROI on the installation will take eight years while the ROI on upgrading the HVAC to pneumatic controls will take five years. Still, the solar panels make an important statement.

“The panels are something people can see and know right away that the campus cares about sustainability,” Shingleton says.

Campuses put forth considerable efforts to spread the word about their commitments to solar, highlighting sustainability initiatives on their websites, developing green campus walking tours (and pointing out installations on broader admissions tours) and speaking to the media about the use of solar on campus.

Elizabeth Bowen, program coordinator in the sustainability office at NC State, believes these initiatives are worth touting because of their popularity with students.

“Even with all these other measurements and commitments [to sustainability] and all of the things that we put in place administratively, we still listen to the students, and the students say they want solar,” she says. “To them, it’s evidence that we practice what we preach and so we work within our means to add solar where we can.”

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based writer and a frequent UB contributor.