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Opinion: More Universities Should Invest in Solar Energy: What Holds Them Back?

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

Photo by Madison Sholar

As a student at a small women’s college in North Carolina, I work to see changes on our campus that reflect the ideals and values that Meredith College promotes in its pronouncements and marketing. I want to see my administrators uphold priorities that will provide the most authentic learning environment possible, and commit to taking visible steps toward a greener campus culture. Such actions would affect all Meredith students. A commitment to clean energy would demonstrate a credible concern for the climate crisis and solidify the college’s claims to sustainability and to racial and environmental justice.

In my efforts to advocate for sustainable actions on Meredith’s campus, I connected with mentors and professors who have been pushing for solar installations for years. Their passion for change sparked my initial interest in finding a way to integrate solar into Meredith’s utility systems; it continues to provide insights into how Meredith College can improve its energy efficiency. More specifically, how can we, as students, compel our universities to take meaningful action on the climate crisis?

I am concerned with how my campus community at Meredith College can become more energy efficient through solar installations. They provide a host of teaching and learning opportunities and would showcase the college’s core values and vision. For me, then, it is vitally important to understand where the priority for clean and renewable energy lies in the financial interests of the college administration, because the younger generation of sustainably-minded individuals who are passionate about preserving global climate stability deserve to be represented by the universities they are funding.

To see a boom in solar investment and cost-effective technologies will mean facing the obstacles of full-renewable energy reliance head-on and recognizing the danger of continued fossil fuel dependence. On college campuses across the country, as well as in my own city of Raleigh, North Carolina, there has been a slow but steadily growing urge to push our college communities forward to align the university’s values with those of their diverse student populations. In this generation, students prioritize the health of our planet more than ever before and have begun to speak out about the reality of environmental injustices.

While the imperative for universities to embrace renewable energy in response to the climate crisis is clear, the impact of the fossil fuel industry on minority communities, particularly in North Carolina, makes it ever more urgent as an issue of racial and environmental justice. Those who experience the disproportionate effects of toxic emissions also suffer the consequences of respiratory diseases and other health problems. In the U.S., African Americans suffer over 54% higher rates of diseases associated with air pollution in comparison to the rest of the country’s population. People living in these largely minority areas, where fracking and drilling for oil and natural gas is most prevalent, have increased rates of asthma, bronchitis, heart disease and lung cancer, among many other illnesses, which are caused by their direct exposure to tiny toxic particulates in the air as a result of fossil fuel emissions.

Making the change to renewable energy should be our number one priority since the health and well-being of our communities depends on it. Communities need to invest in research that seek solutions to the technical problems of solar battery technology and find ways to lower the “soft costs” that make solar more expensive. It is essential to moving our energy usage in a zero-emission direction.

Though an all-encompassing breakthrough has yet to fix these problems keeping renewable energies like solar, wind, hydropower and geothermal from replacing fossil fuels for good, there are emerging opportunities that could cut lingering high prices of cleaner energy sources and make it easier to push for a widespread clean energy transition.

Universities have a responsibility to lead the clean energy revolution as symbols of cutting-edge research and technological advancement in their communities. College campuses operate like small, localized cities in terms of energy consumption. A higher rate of college enrollment has resulted in rising operational costs and led to higher tuition for students, a kind of cyclical downward spiral that only results in higher energy demands. Thus universities, with their small ecosystems teeming with ingenuity and innovation, are prime places for renewable energy to flourish and dominate an energy landscape where non-renewables still drive up tuition costs and generate unnecessary expenses for colleges and universities.

How might renewable solar benefit and flourish on my own Meredith College campus? I recently spoke with Dr. Matt Stutz, an Associate Professor of Geoscience. According to Dr. Stutz, one of the most valuable benefits of solar energy would be sparking a student’s interest and encouraging them to investigate and learn more about the greener behavior and technology. From an educational standpoint, Stutz said, “Knowledge is really important in setting goals and trying to change peoples’ behaviors.” For Stutz, solar installations are also strong symbols of the college’s values and vision. “It is a very tangible and visible sign that we value sustainability and it’s a statement to students who want to come here, that we value sustainability and they can learn more about sustainability at Meredith by the way that we operate the campus, that we do use renewable energy, that we do have composting programs, that we are always trying to find ways to improve on our sustainability efforts.”

Among university students surveyed for the potential benefits following more solar energy integration on their college campus, the most commonly expressed answers were that it would help the environment and create continuing publicity and marketing potential for environmental sustainability majors, opportunities for teaching and research and long-term financial savings. Universities in the prime states for maximum yearly sun exposure, such as California or Arizona, have the greatest ability to rely on solar for baseload power and have already seen the positive effects roll in as they lower total energy costs, cut emissions and grow educational opportunities on their campuses. But Dr. Stutz hopes that with student involvement, those positive impacts can be extended to Meredith’s campus, and avoid remaining limited to universities and colleges in areas with continuous hours of year-round sunshine. He explains with enthusiasm, “In a space where there is a visible symbol like that (solar) you essentially start learning about why it’s there. The campus itself can be a teaching environment. So that’s one way, the other way is that you can use it to do experiential learning, you can have a physics class measure the amount of voltage generated by that current and you can calculate how much energy the college is saving by not having to buy that energy from the utility company. So, there are lots of different ways you can see that value coming out in educational opportunities.”

Dr. Stutz’s course in Environmental Resources conducts a greenhouse gas audit every fall, measuring how much energy the campus has used and then applying that knowledge with the options Meredith students have at their disposal to reduce energy usage. He states, “(…) like solar panels, you can use that as a way to teach methods to promote the continued effort of lowering our collective carbon footprint.”

Currently, the primary hurdle standing in the way of installing solar on universities campuses is the hefty initial investment costs. A way to overcome this is supplemental grant funds and incentives. There are so many new opportunities for colleges like Meredith to receive incentives from companies like Duke Energy, mainly because of campuses non-profit status and massive energy consumption. The more energy a building or system uses and the more solar panels they install, the more money they would receive from the Duke Energy incentive program.

But increase student interest and for the campus to reap these benefits, according to Dr. Stutz, visibility is key: “I think students would be more willing to try and promote those kinds of projects, once they see that we have some evidence or proof of it already sitting on a rooftop or free-standing in the middle of an educational space.”

Meredith already is working to save energy, Stutz says, but in ways that are hard to show off: “Those other improvements show up in our data, when we look at the energy usage and we’ve seen the energy usage decrease, that shows up pretty obviously, but that’s a story not a lot of people know because we were replacing things like the chiller and aspects of our heating system. But having something visible, I think, is important, because it’s a better communicator than people know, you know they see a solar panel and know immediately what it’s there for.”

We are in a time of great social upheaval where students are calling upon their leaders to both tackle the climate crisis and dismantle the systems of white supremacy that are pervasive throughout our society. In embracing solar energy, Meredith College and universities across the country can do both.

This article was originally published on the Rachel Carson Council website and has been reprinted with the permission of the Rachel Carson Council and the author; it can be viewed in its original format here.

By Emma Fry, Contributor



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