Universities have a lot of energy needs. From facilities like libraries and gyms that need to remain well-lit and open for extended hours, to multiple computer labs, to simply providing electricity for hundreds of students who live in on-campus housing, the total electrical consumption can be expensive and create a massive carbon footprint.

The high cost of electricity has already driven many college campuses to become their own utility providers, but now some are taking it a step further by going solar. And thanks to the U.S. Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative and other public and private funding options, it's now easier than ever for higher education institutions to power their campus with this clean, renewable energy source.

Schools partnering with Sunshot

The SunShot Initiative's Solar Market Pathways program delivers funding and awards to projects that are advancing solar deployment across the United States at the commercial, residential and utility-scale. The program has already been used to fund two large projects that enabled colleges and universities to drastically decrease their reliance on fossil fuels as well as several smaller scale projects.

"The SunShot Initiative awards funding to projects that are advancing solar deployment across the United States."

In the first group to enact a major project with Solar Market Pathways funding was the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia. Fifteen of the organization's member schools used a group purchasing structure to install solar systems that will reach 38 megawatts of distributed generation by 2020. By utilizing group purchasing, the schools were able to secure lower prices for their panels, increasing the system's ROI from the beginning and adding to the reduction in operating costs and other economic benefits of the solar system.

Solar Market Pathways was also utilized by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association to fund its Solar University Network, which has partnered utilities and universities at four schools to implement solar installations. The program also includes professional development events,  campus solar development teams, and direct technical assistance to encourage schools to invest in solar and students to pursue renewable energy careers. The Solar University Network is being piloted at the University of Minnesota, Illinois State University, Purdue University and Missouri University of Science and Technology.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory and SunShot have also partnered to provide universities with screenings and implementation assistance for deploying mid-scale solar systems. All U.S. higher education institutions are eligible to apply to the free program. The Energy Department's Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment program is also being used at several universities to recruit future utility sector professionals to modernize the U.S. electric grid with more solar capacity.

Other campus solar success stories

Several other college campuses throughout the U.S. are increasing their utility-scale solar capacity through private and public funding.

For example, the University of California Davis installed a 16.3-megawatt solar power plant in 2015. UC Davis estimates the plant generates 14 percent of the campus' total electricity needs and is the largest "behind the meter" solar plant on a U.S. college campus offsetting electricity demand. The solar project is expected to reduce the campus' carbon footprint by 9 percent, or 14,000 metric tons.

The Association of Advanced Sustainability in Higher Education credits The University of Arizona with having the most installed solar capacity on its campus with 28,095 kilowatts, while Arizona State University was ranked second with 23,567 kilowatts of total capacity. Rutgers University, Mount St. Mary's University, Colorado State University, California State University at Fullerton, West Hills Community College District, the United States Air Force Academy, Arizona Western College and Butte College rounded out the top 10 colleges and universities with the highest solar capacity.

"Campuses that install utility-scale solar systems enjoy a decreased dependence on the conventional electric grid."

In addition to the energy savings these systems afford, University Business noted, college campuses that install utility-scale solar systems receive the added benefit of a decreased dependence on the conventional electric grid. In areas of the country that experience frequent blackouts or brownouts due to grid being over-burdened, a campus with an appropriately sized solar system is better able to meet its own requirements for electric power during these service interruptions and prevent disruptions to student learning and campus activities.

With the financial assistance available from both the federal government and, in many cases, state agencies, campuses and universities have many funding options to explore when considering adding a solar system. While some schools have utilized a direct ownership model, where the school would receive tax incentives and, where applicable, be able to sell renewable energy certificates from the system, many campuses have also chosen to take advantage of third-party financing arrangements such as Power Purchase Agreements and Energy Services Agreement.

However campuses decide to pursue funding for their solar system, University Business said the current financial environment and available funding options make now an opportune time to invest in collegiate solar.

As the world's leading manufacturer of solar panels, Trina Solar is committed to the growth of solar as a means of supplying clean, renewable energy to colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and the world.

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