How to Bring Solar Power to an Urban Institution

In the heart of bustling Washington, D.C., land is at a premium. Here in Foggy Bottom, where the George Washington University sits just blocks from the White House, we would never have the land—or roof space—to build enough solar panels to sustainably power our institution and significantly reduce our carbon footprint. Our neighbors in a three-mile radius—startup OPower, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the World Bank—face the same problem, which is increasingly exacerbated by the fact that more and more people are moving into urban areas around the world.

At GW, we are committed to addressing global warming not only because of its environmental impact, but also because of the disproportionately negative impact it has on the poor around the world.  So, how can we sustainably support the power our urban institution needs in a climate-constrained world? Not only is the GW Office of Sustainability asking this question, but GW’s students are asking it, too. After all, they will be the generation of executives and decision-makers running the country when the effects of climate change could hit hardest.

Responsible for moving GW to carbon neutrality, the Office of Sustainability has worked within the university’s operations. With colleagues in Facilities, Campus Development, I.T., and Finance, we have implemented various environmental efficiency measures (GW has nine LEED-certified buildings and a campus-wide building energy efficiency program), but they only go so far in reducing or eliminating our carbon footprint. The answer, the GW Office of Sustainability has found after engaging in a four-year process and working with two other D.C. institutions, is to develop an offsite solar farm from which we can source our green power. With the hope that we can begin to shift the retail energy market toward greener power, through the university’s business practice, GW is showing that large organizations in an urban setting can partner to significantly reduce their carbon footprints.

Capital Partners Solar Project, as we’ve dubbed it, is a partnership among GW, American University (AU) and the George Washington University Hospital (GWUH). Comprising 52 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) power—roughly the amount of electricity used by 8,200 homes every year—it is the largest non-utility solar PV power purchase agreement in the United States in total megawatt hours contracted, and the largest PV project east of the Mississippi River. Duke Energy Renewables (DER) supplies the power.

By 2015, GW will receive more than half of its electricity need from the Capital Partners Solar Project, which will accelerate GW reaching its 2025 carbon reduction goal. The project will create a 30 percent reduction in GW’s emissions associated with its electricity use. Together, the three partners will eliminate 60,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is equivalent to taking roughly 12,500 cars off the road. This will help to mitigate GW’s climate impact on the environment and communities around the world.

The solar power harvested by 243,000 solar panels in North Carolina will move through the state’s electrical grid into the D.C. regional grid, increasing the amount of solar energy in the region.

For the partners, the 20-year agreement will provide fixed pricing for the solar energy at a lower total price than current power solutions. Our Capital Partners Solar Project is expected to yield greater economic savings for the partners as traditional power prices are anticipated to increase at a higher rate over the same period.

The project wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our leadership and the collaboration of AU and GWUH. And, we have designed the project such that we can work with faculty in the GW Solar Institute, Sustainability Institute, the GW Law School Energy Program, and others to leverage the project as a living laboratory for student learning and faculty research.

Gary Farha, President and CEO of CustomerFirst Renewables (which structured the deal with DER), said, “Executive involvement and support is key in moving these projects forward. While the cross-functional team can develop a plan and vet the options and issues, without buy-in and progressive leadership at the highest levels, it is very difficult to make a project of this importance and magnitude happen.”

GW provided the greatest buy-in as the largest purchaser, with about 70 percent of the project’s power. The partners will break ground on the first site this summer, and panels will begin to deliver electricity to GW by the end of the year.

Alex Perera, renewable energy expert at the World Resources Institute, said the project is a “model” for others.

“GW and its partners have developed a model that directly ties the solar source with their use and payments,” he said. “Their approach could help move the market to more direct sourcing of renewable energy by large retail buyers. This solution could be widely replicated by buyers in the public and private sectors.”

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, added: “This project is a real game changer for a number of reasons. It shows that renewables can be deployed on a scale that really moves the needle for large customers. And it proves, once again, that the clean tech industry is growing. ”

The GW Office of Sustainability, with our partners at AU and GWUH, have proven that a university in the middle of an urban center can source a significant amount of our power from offsite renewable energy. This is what our students have been demanding. They want a greener and more just future. We see this as a great step toward a new energy world and look forward to other large institutions joining us in combating global warming.

Meghan Chapple is Director of GW’s Office of Sustainability and Senior Adviser on University Sustainability Initiatives.

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