A bright idea: Shining light on sustainable solar energy options

There are startlingly few moments in the day when I am not plugged in to my electronics. During my waking hours – in my room or in the library – I plug in my laptop and desk lamp. When in class or in the dining hall, I plug in indirectly by using the campus lighting, heating and cooling systems. At night, I plug in my fan (for the noise – thanks, neighbors) and my phone charger. In fact, my sole moments off the grid are my hasty jaunts into the outdoors – my walks across campus and my runs beyond its boundaries. Even then, the heat chugs away in the winter, and who knows what else I left plugged in?

The College obtains almost 100 percent of its energy for heating and cooling from fossil fuels (heavy oil fuel and natural gas). We buy our electricity from TransCanada, 60 percent of which derives from hydropower. Though hydropower is a renewable source, it is not without its problems. Hydropower dams can be destructive downstream, affecting fish migration and habitat, as well as water sources for communities and animals. TransCanada is also funding the problematic Keystone Pipeline project to transport oil from Alberta to the Midwest (a project that 100 Williams students traveled to Washington. D.C., this fall to protest).

But what if when we were asked about where our energy comes from on campus, we could point directly to panels covering our roofs? What if we could point to the sun? I sat down to chat with Interim Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives Amy Johns to figure out if, how and when that might happen.

The Zilkha Center is planning to begin a feasibility study to assess whether photovoltaic (PV) panels, which generate electricity from sunlight, might be added to campus roofs to create a sustainable source of energy. If implemented, a solar PV project would be funded through a private purchaser agreement (PPA), in which a private company pays the upfront cost for the panels and construction. The College would then buy electricity from the company at a cost comparable to normal electricity costs.

According to Johns, PPAs are sensible for non-profit institutions like the College that do not pay taxes, since many of the incentives for renewable projects come from tax incentives that benefit landowners and for-profit companies. If the College decides a PPA is a good idea, Johns said the project could go through within the next two years. And once the College decides to take the plunge, installation would be a speedy process. “They’re like these stealth commando solar installers! They come in, they install it and they’re done,” Johns said. She predicted that a PPA project could cover 10 to 15 percent of the College’s energy usage.

The Zilkha Center has also hired a consultant to look into large-scale solar heating technologies that could collect the sun’s thermal energy and channel it toward direct space, water and pool heating. The consultant will consider incorporating this technology into Chandler Pool, Paresky and dorms that are in use year-round.

Johns explained that the feasibility study is supposed to address preliminary questions regarding cost and the collaboration with elements of the existing building. If the College decided to implement solar thermal projects, it would have to pay upfront. Due to the financial burden, Johns predicted that solar thermal projects would have to be phased in gradually over the next 10 years.

I also spoke with President Falk about the administrative reality behind these projects. I expressed to him that the PPA project made sense and inquired about its feasibility. He understood my excitement but explained calmly, “The feasibility of such projects depends crucially on the details.” These little devils include “not only the costs of installation but also the amount of sunlight available at different locations, the interface with the electric grid and the buildings energy systems, and so on.”

The soundness of the building structure must also be brought up in preliminary discussion towards this project. As Falk noted, you can’t put solar on roofs that can’t support the weight. Additionally, the financial reality of the future is inevitably uncertain.

Choosing renewable energy projects won’t always create win-win situations. At the College, students and administrators alike might have to change the way they envision an earth-friendly campus. As Falk pointed out, we might have to relinquish some of the privileges they take for granted. “I am concerned that in order to make environmentally sound choices more palatable, we as a society have focused almost exclusively on those initiatives that are relatively painless,” Falk said. “But the truth is that in order to lessen seriously our impact on the planet, we will need to change our behavior in ways that will not go unnoticed. That’s much harder, and as a community and as a culture, we’ve largely avoided that.”

Regardless of whether solar technology makes an appearance on campus, it’s clear that making the College more sustainable absolutely requires a change in behavior. But could the implementation of solar projects be causal agents of that change? Experts suggest that earth-friendly technology actually inspires people to act in earth-friendly ways. If students see that sustainability is a priority on campus, they might be more conscious of their own actions.

Johns and Falk both emphasized that change cannot simply come from the administration. Reducing the College’s energy requirements means that everyone on campus needs to plug in a little less. However, with the prospect of alternative energy on the horizon, perhaps the future of solar power at the College is bright after all.