Colleges and Their Students Can Pave the Way for 100% Renewable Energy

Renewable energy may be best achieved when colleges and universities lead the way. A new report released by the Environment New York Research & Policy Center, titled, “Renewable Energy 100: The Course to a Carbon-Free Campus,” reminds us how universities have already played a significant role in advancing climate science, warning of climate change impacts, crafting policy solutions to reduce emissions, and promoting clean energy technologies like wind and solar power and high capacity batteries. The report stresses that a complete shift to clean, renewable energy is the best way for colleges and universities to achieve their carbon reduction goals.

Moving to 100 percent renewable energy means transitioning our entire economy away from dependence on fossil fuels. That includes electricity generation, which today is responsible for about 40 percent of our energy consumption, as well as transportation, industry, heating, and cooling. 

The report cites a number of factors that make institutions of higher education well-suited to lead America’s efforts.

  • They are significant energy consumers, serving more than 20 million students;
  • College and university campuses often have physical attributes that make them good locations for hosting clean energy projects. Many have space on rooftops, in parking lots, and on marginal land for hosting solar panels, wind turbines, and other clean energy technologies;
  • They can save money and hedge against volatile fossil fuel costs by investing in clean energy; and,
  • They are leaders of innovation and training;

The nearly 5,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. are major consumers of energy. They serve 20 million
students, representing more than 6 percent of the national population. They operate tens of thousands of buildings, which must be heated, cooled, and powered, including energy-intensive research facilities. Students and faculty require transportation between classes, offices, and residences, sometimes on sprawling campuses the size of small cities. The higher education sector spends roughly $14 billion on energy costs each year, and the education
sector as a whole, including K-12 schools, consumed 10 percent of all energy used by the commercial sector
in 2012.

“By adopting plans for a rapid and steady shift to 100 percent, clean renewable energy America’s colleges and universities can play a vital role in the country’s efforts reduce climate-altering carbon pollution,” said Heather Leibowitz, Director of Environment New York. “As influential institutions in their communities, they can set an example while conducting the research we need and training the clean energy practitioners of the future.”

To make its case, the report highlights schools across the country that are taking measures to make the transition to renewable energy. The University of Michigan’s Battery Fabrication and Characterization User Facility, better known as the “Battery Lab,” is developing high-capacity batteries with the goal of advancing vehicle electrification and energy storage. Stanford researchers are developing policy tools and pathways for getting the U.S. and the world to 100 percent renewable energy. At Maine’s College of the Atlantic, where 100 percent of the school’s electricity comes from wind and solar power, three quarters of the faculty are engaged in sustainability research and more than a third of the school’s classes are related to environmentalism.

“We’ve long been committed to promoting sustainability practices and are proud to have established one of the first environmental science departments in the country. Our progress toward achieving climate neutrality plays a key role in advancing our institutional priority of sustainability,” said President James H. Mullen of Allegheny College. “It’s about doing what’s right – not only because of the environmental, economic and social benefits, but also the important message it sends to the student leaders who will go into the world and continue to make it a better, healthier place for generations to follow.”

The amount of energy the U.S. uses pales in comparison to its renewable energy potential, according to the report. At the same time, there is a tremendous opportunity to reduce energy consumption through energy conservation and efficiency measures. The report acknowledges that not all renewable energy sources have an equal benefit for the environment. Some forms of biomass and hydroelectric power can create environmental problems. Colleges moving away from fossil fuels should ensure that they transition to truly clean, renewable energy, including energy sources that are:

  • Virtually pollution-free, producing little to no global warming pollution or health-threatening pollution;
  • Inexhaustible, coming from natural sources that are regenerative or practically unlimited;
  • Safe, with minimal impacts on the environment, community safety, and public health, and those impacts that do occur are temporary, not permanent; and,
  • Efficient, representing a wise use of resources.

Although all energy sources must be deployed responsibly, solar and wind energy meet these criteria, as do many types of ocean, tidal, river current and geothermal energy. Energy efficiency technologies also count as “clean energy” – delivering continuous environmental benefit at limited to no environmental cost.

Many colleges and universities have taken important steps toward clean energy. The report highlights campuses from across the country including Butte College in California that completed installation of 25,000 solar panels to become ‘grid positive’ and Ball State in Indiana, which replaced aging coal-fired boilers with emission-free geothermal heating systems. Additionally, Cornell University has long been a leader in tackling climate change, with a current goal of carbon neutrality by 2035.

“Achieving our 2035 campus carbon neutrality goal includes a shift to 100 percent renewable energy to heat and power campus buildings, while investing in energy conservation and engaging the entire campus community to dramatically reduce our energy consumption,” said Sarah Zemanick, Campus Sustainability Office Director.
By setting ambitious clean energy goals, colleges and universities can bolster learning and research, drive innovation, attract new students, and save money – all while setting an example for the nation and reducing their own environmental impact. At the same time, bold clean energy goals are attractive to students and others in the campus community.

“A shift to 100 percent renewable energy is the kind of vision that’s needed to inspire young adults on college campuses to get involved,” said Leibowitz. “Today’s college students will be the civic leaders we need to move us to a sustainable world.”

Although clean energy projects often bring long-term savings, they also typically require an up-front capital investment. To benefit from clean energy without negatively impacting short-term finances, colleges and universities can take advantage of a wide variety of options for financing clean energy, including options that avoid upfront costs.
Under a power purchase agreement (PPA), colleges and universities can obtain clean energy without upfront costs and without any need for future spending on maintenance or operation by agreeing to purchase energy from a clean energy provider for a predetermined price and length of time. Colleges and universities can be particularly well-suited for PPAs because many are established institutions that can enter into long-term contracts. Long-term PPAs
(typically 20 years) allow institutions to hedge against future fluctuations in energy prices and help drive
renewable energy growth by providing certainty to developers.

Environment New York is a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization working for clean air, clean water, and open space.


Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She's an avid Formula One fan (this year's trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+