What can Universities do to earn an A+ in Renewable Energy Use?

Nov. 17, 2022
Universities have massive carbon footprints. Here’s how they can embrace renewable energy to reverse that trend

Industries like manufacturing and supply chains are often the focus of renewable energy talks. While it’s important for these sectors to go green, they’re not the only ones needing to transition to carbon-free power. Renewable energy in universities is also crucial.

U.S. colleges and universities use 18.8 kWh of electricity and 17 cubic feet of natural gas per square foot every year—that adds up to more than $100,000 in energy spending on average plus considerable carbon emissions, considering most electricity comes from fossil fuels.

As climate issues become more prominent, universities must embrace renewable energy. Here’s how they can.

On-Campus Renewable Generation

The most straightforward part of the university renewable energy puzzle is on-campus green energy generation. While it’s becoming increasingly accessible to buy clean electricity from the grid, most universities can’t power their entire campus through these purchases. Generating it on-campus provides the sustainability and power they need without waiting for larger-scale infrastructure change.

University campuses are also ideal places to install renewable infrastructure like solar panels and wind turbines. Class buildings and dorms are often large, which provides plenty of surface area on their rooftops for these systems. Many larger universities also own land beyond their main campus where they can install renewables.

While constructing these systems is expensive at first, the independence universities gain from the grid will make up for those costs over time. Government incentives like tax breaks can help offset the expenses, too.

Clean Data

It’s also important to recognize that not all of a university’s energy-related carbon emissions come from campus facilities. Data is one of the most easily overlooked but critical of these areas to address.

Data centers use a substantial amount of energy, and universities rely heavily on them to manage their websites, store student data, and more. Consequently, if these institutions want to fully embrace renewable energy, they must ensure their cloud resources come from renewable or carbon-free-powered data centers.

Thankfully, many leading cloud providers are moving towards sustainable data centers. Google recently helped fund four solar farms to power its Texas data center and cloud infrastructure. As more of these companies embrace renewable energy, it’ll become easier for universities to transition to clean data.

Energy-Efficient Infrastructure

Another important part of switching to renewable energy for universities is reducing power consumption. While renewables are becoming more efficient every year, larger institutions may struggle to meet all of their current power needs with these systems. Most universities also can’t likely switch to 100% renewable energy immediately. Reducing energy expenditures in the meantime will help.

Many universities have older electrical infrastructure. Switching to newer, more efficient systems will reduce how much power they need to support student and staff activities, lowering their energy costs. These lower expenses will help fund future renewable investments.

Reducing energy consumption will also make large-scale renewable energy more feasible. When universities don’t need as much power, they won’t have to install as many solar panels or worry as much about meeting demand with less energy-dense systems.

Backup Energy Systems

As a university uses more renewable energy, decision-makers should keep reliability in mind. While wind and solar power are becoming increasingly reliable, they’re still prone to disruption, as they rely on inconsistent natural factors. Switching over to a new system will also likely mean some disruption, so universities must have reliable backup power.

Energy storage infrastructure is crucial, especially given wind and solar’s intermittency. Keeping backup generators on hand, at least for critical systems, is another important step.

If universities want to ensure these backup generators fall in line with their sustainability initiatives, they should consider buying used models. Despite misconceptions, used generators can uphold the same level of reliability and carry fewer embedded emissions, as they don’t require manufacturing a new one.

Carbon Offsets

Some renewable energy in university settings will also have to come from carbon credits, not on-campus generation. While generating as much on-site clean power as possible should be universities’ primary goal, many may be unable to meet all their energy needs with these renewables. Investing in solar farms elsewhere can help reduce their carbon footprints despite still using any unavoidable fossil fuel-generated power.

There’s also an environmental advantage to the convenience of these offsets. Investing more in renewables, faster, will reduce the most serious climate consequences, and carbon credits help universities embrace it faster. These offsets can minimize their impact in the meantime as they pursue longer-term, more impactful renewable infrastructure.

It’s important to be upfront about carbon offsets. If universities invest in these credits but aren’t transparent about it, it could lead to accusations of greenwashing.

Growing the Renewable Energy University Concept Further

Renewable energy in universities is an important step in the fight against climate change. Pursuing green power will also help these institutions appeal to increasingly climate-conscious prospective students.

Focusing on these five areas will help universities maximize their renewable energy initiatives. They can then make the most of this technology and its environmental promises.

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About the author: Emily Newton is an industrial and tech journalist who’s passionate about how technology is revolutionizing each sector. She has over five years experience writing and editing and enjoys her role as Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized.