Start-Ups Rise to Push Solar on College Campuses

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Universities are on the cutting edge of solar energy research, but they’re surprisingly laggard when it comes to adopting it.

Only nine campuses have installed systems producing more than 1 megawatt of electricity, and even those system are making only a tiny dent in their campus power supplies. The 1.2 MW system at the University of California San Diego, for one, generates less than 4% of campus energy use. Dozens of other campuses have smaller solar projects, but among them, only 27 top 100 kilowatts.

Compare our nation’s universities with Wal-Mart, and the numbers are pitiful. Wal-Mart has 18 large arrays in California alone, and it just announced it will double that number in the next 18 months.

So why are universities so slow to jump on solar?

Certainly they could benefit from the carbon-reduction points they’ll earn under the University and College President’s Climate Commitment, a pledge that 633 institutions are now bound to. Solar is also an outstanding educational vehicle for students, especially those eyeing 21st century green jobs. And we mustn’t forget, PV makes great fodder for glossy recruitment pamphlets.

The answer is perhaps best explained by the handful of NGOs and for-profit consulting firms that have popped up to advance the market for solar in higher ed.

They pare the issue down to this: University decision-making moves at a glacial pace, and speedy private-sector solar firms have plenty of other business they can move on with for-profit velocity. It simply hasn’t been worth the time of solar firms to work with campuses – until now.

That untapped market and the lost opportunity for universities are precisely what compelled Jacob Travis, founder of the newly launched Solar College Initiative, to get involved in the solar biz after years in academia.

“There’s a fundamental issue – after a certain point, it just doesn’t remain profitable for solar firms to work with universities because the decision-making and contracting period tends to take forever. By streamlining the evaluation and contracting phases, we hope to create a ‘solar pipeline’, where numerous firms will be jumping at the chance to offer ripe universities the best solar deal they can get. It’s a total win-win.”

The SCI team will work with campuses individually, walking decision-makers through the complex process of evaluating solar potential, researching financing options, and preparing a professional-grade “request for proposal” to attract competitive solar firms.

SCI is currently searching for campuses to participate in a pilot program, which`launched at the Power Shift 2009 conference in March and has received considerable interest. Jeff Zumwalt, associate director of utilities at the University of New Mexico, hopes his campus will be one of the first to work with SCI.

“At UNM, we have several attractive qualities such as clear and sunny skies, an entire campus of flat roofs, and active energy participation from our political representatives in Washington D.C. We’ve been interested in solar for years, but we’re not experts. There’s no one out there like SCI – they’re exactly what we’ve needed.”

SCI hopes to work with 20 campuses in its pilot program, aiming for installations by spring of 2010.

Solar Power Partners is a more established firm with a credible track record of implementing sizable solar arrays on college campuses. In fact, Solar Power Partners is responsible for many of the existing solar projects on campuses today, including the arrays at UCSD, Cal Tech, and Point Loma Nazarene University. The company pioneered the PPA (power purchase agreement) model, where it finances, owns and operates the arrays itself, and agrees to a 15-year contract with customers.

"This economic means of gaining solar energy for the campus is part of Caltech’s focus on sustainability and renewable energy. It saves money, fosters awareness, reduces the Institute’s environmental impact, and provides environment stewardship,” said Bill Irwin, senior director of facility management at Caltech.

The UC San Diego solar arrays have contributed not just clean energy, but also prestige for the university. The university recently attained "Climate Action Leader" status in the Climate Action Registry, another notch in their quest to become “the greenest campus in the U.S.”

Alexander Welczeck, President and CEO of Solar Power Partners, says the company’s policy is to use local labor and “deliver solar energy in a financially viable way to schools and universities.”

Universities aren’t the only campuses looking to jump into solar.

Adam Raudonis, a 17-year-old at Westlake High School near Los Angeles, founded Students for Solar Schools, which aims to help high school students across the country get small arrays set up on their campuses.

Adam set out to tackle the problem by spending countless weekends researching solar energy, until he had a basic process worked out for adopting solar on his campus. After building his web site and throwing some small fundraisers in his community, several other like-minded high schoolers stumbled across his blog and wanted to get involved. His idea has now become a full-fledged high school movement, with sister schools in New York, Minnesota, Texas and Puerto Rico.

“Students for Solar Schools sets out to do this with the philosophy that the students themselves are responsible for the change they seek," Adam told Treehugger in a recent interview.

"This ideal times perfectly with a new wave of civil activism sparked by our president that pleads ‘if wait for somebody else to do something, to make our communities better, it [will] never get done.’

With bright self-starters like Adam, it’s clear institutions of education are going to be getting solar fast, whether they’re ready or not.