The concept of solar power is not an unfamiliar concept for many people. Widely discussed in the 1970’s as an alternative solution to the energy crisis, solar power is one of the most widely abundant energy sources on earth. As many universities make great strides to achieve “green friendly” practices, solar panels are becoming a familiar sight on many campuses across the country. In 2001, the University of Vermont undertook a project to install 48 120-Watt panels on roofs of their academic buildings. These panels made by AstroPower, Inc. cover 500 square feet and are made from recycled materials. When the roof of a heating plant on campus needed to be replaced, staff in the Physical Plant Department at the university proposed that solar panels be installed to increase efficiency.
The panels’ actual AC output varies depending on weather conditions but the University of Vermont claims that on an average day, the panels generate 19 kilowatt-hours (kWh). While this may seem like a small amount of energy, it is enough to operate:
• 95 energy efficient light bulbs for ten hours, or
• 9 TVs for 10 hours, or
• 9 desktop computers for 10 hours
While installation of these panels can be somewhat costly, the long-term benefits are great. Panels provide a free power source after installation allowing for operators to predict cost. Solar panels are silent reducing noise pollution and create no air pollutants. “According to the EPA, a 5kw system can avoid 18,583 pounds of CO2, or about 9 tons of CO2 per year”.
The University of Vermont is not alone. Colorado State University, University of South Florida, New Mexico State University, Oregon State University, and Washington University are just a sampling of some of the universities across the country that are now utilizing solar panels as a source of energy. According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), solar panels are the most cost-effective alternative only second to energy conservation. While opponents of solar panels cite relatively high costs of installation and long payback periods, many incentive programs are available to assist in reducing initial costs.
While many universities may consider solar panel installation for renovation projects an inefficient use of funds, several affordable options are available for retrofitting existing buildings in addition to new construction. Passive solar, daylighting, and solar hot water are all viable options for any university according to the AASHE. Of these options, solar hot water can be more cost-effective yet is not widely used. It is rare to find incentive programs for solar hot water system installation but partnering such projects with environmental science and environmental studies departments at universities can provide environmental benefits as well as educational opportunities for students. Buildings such as athletic facilities, student centers, and residence halls are most likely to benefit from the installation of such systems due to high volumes of hot water consumption.
In our ever-increasing globalized society, it is imperative for universities across the country to take the initiative to develop and support sustainable practices regarding energy production and consumption that will assist in optimizing ecological and social well-being for all.
By: Jacob Adams