Renewable Energy and Microgrids Offer Colleges a Path to Cutting Carbon: Report

March 27, 2017
It’s no secret that colleges and universities are some of the biggest microgrid users. But a new report says we should see more renewable energy and microgrids at these institutions.

It’s no secret that colleges and universities are some of the biggest microgrid users. But a new report says we should see more renewable energy and microgrids at these institutions.

The report, from Environment America Research & Policy Center, “Renewable Energy 100: The Course to a Carbon-Free Campus,” says that the shift to 100 percent renewable energy can be led by colleges and universities eager to become carbon neutral.

Hundreds of colleges and universities have already pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050. Many have signed onto Second Nature’s Climate Leadership, says the report.

Moving to 100 percent renewable energy is the best way to meet the goal of becoming carbon neutral, the report says.

What’s more, the self-contained nature of these educational institutions makes them good candidates for microgrids, says the report.

“Microgrids are self-contained electric grids that can function independently of the central power grid while taking advantage of ‘smart’ technology to match renewable energy supply and demand,” the report says.

In addition, microgrids can provide resiliency during outages. 

“This resiliency can be an important benefit to colleges concerned about power outages leaving students stranded, or affecting the function of research facilities. Deploying microgrids can also allow universities to demonstrate the practicability of high penetrations of variable renewable energy (e.g., wind and solar power),” says the report. 

Santa Clara University is just one university that’s taking advantage of renewable energy and microgrids, says the report. It is building a microgrid system that will utilize weather reports to maximize renewable energy reliance. It will also use sensors in campus buildings to monitor energy use.

Colleges and universities are uniquely suited to transition to renewable energy, says the report.  Because they serve more than 20 million students, they are big energy consumers. And physically, they have the right kind of space available: They have rooftops, parking lots and marginal land where they could site solar, wind or other clean technologies. What’s more, these educational institutions are leaders in innovation and training.

Pressure for educational institutions to move to clean energy comes from students. 

“The Princeton Review and other college guides for prospective students highlight schools that have made a commitment to sustainability,” says the report.

The report also notes that the first renewable energy installation at Northwestern University, a solar panel system covering the roof of the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, came out of two years of planning and fundraising by university students.

“Off campus, students have been critical actors in clean energy and climate change activism; for example, tens of thousands of students from more than 300 college campuses joined the People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014,” the report says. 

The report points to the potential for colleges and universities to encourage local communities to adopt clean energy and help accelerate the transition to clean energy for the nation. 

“Campuses can build partnerships with local communities to expand clean energy and campus deployment can create new supply chains, develop clean energy jobs and expertise, and bring down costs,” says the report.  

Many college campuses are already moving toward renewable energy.

“The Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership Program lists 45 higher education institutions that get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources,” says the report. In addition, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) lists 587 solar energy installations at 330 campuses in 41 states, the report says.

Colleges and universities that now have microgrids include the University of Pittsburgh,  Princeton University, and Wesleyan University,  and Algonquin College.

Many educational institutions already have combined heat and power plants, which often serve as the core of microgrids.

The report details some of the efforts of colleges and universities to move toward renewable energy, including Butte College, which installed 25,000 solar panels and became the nation’s first college to become grid positive; and the University of Delaware, which has a wind turbine that powers the school’s entire Lewes Campus and 100 nearby homes.

“Colleges and universities have long played a leading role in bringing technological changes to society,” concludes the report’s executive summary. “Colleges and universities across the country should commit to getting 100 percent of their energy – including for transportation and heating – from clean, renewable sources. They should do so on ambitious timelines, while sharing data and lessons from their experience, working with surrounding communities,  and engaging their students in the process” 

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About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

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