Four years after a 104-kilowatt solar panel array on the roof of Eastern Mennonite University’s Hartzler Library came online, the university has announced plans to significantly expand its commitment to renewable energy with more solar panels on and beside the University Commons.
The new installation, expected to be in operation by the summer of 2015, will be able to generate 511 kilowatts of electricity (as measured in “direct-current” or DC power). The panels will be mounted on canopies above the University Commons parking lot and on that building’s roof. Along with the original library array, the new installation should allow EMU to produce up to 14 percent of its annual electric demand from solar energy.
“That’s a huge percentage,” said Drew Gallagher, Virginia campus organizer with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network who attended a public meeting in early October announcing the new solar initiative. Afterwards, in an email to EMU President Loren Swartzendruber, Gallagher wrote of his plans to begin “showcasing EMU’s efforts as your campus is on the cutting edge among Virginia colleges.”
As was the case with the installation on the library roof, EMU has entered an agreement with Secure Futures, a solar energy development company based in Staunton, Virginia, to install, operate and maintain the new array. Secure Futures president and CEO Tony Smith is also a professor at EMU’s master’s of business administration program.
The new solar project will proceed under a unique “customer self-generation agreement” between EMU and Secure Futures. The arrangement, devised by Secure Futures to overcome various regulatory hurdles that have made Virginia a relatively difficult state for solar energy development, requires no capital investment from EMU and will reduce the university’s electric bill from the very start.
EMU will achieve additional across-the-board operational savings with the help of a natural gas generator that will be installed at the same time as the solar panels. The generator will help the university lower its peak electric demand, a measurement of consumption used to set electric rates throughout the year. With the additional solar capacity and occasional help from the generator – primarily during the winter, when the solar panels produce less electricity – that lower peak demand will put EMU on a cheaper rate scale with the Harrisonburg Electric Commission, Smith said.
The solar panels and generator will also serve as a “nano-grid,” improving EMU’s emergency preparedness with the capacity to meet electricity demands in Northlawn’s dorm rooms and dining hall during a wider power outage, Smith added.
“It’s another step in a long history of EMU paying attention to energy use,” said Swartzendruber. “EMU’s been leading efforts in sustainability going back to the ’70s.”
Swartzendruber, who serves on the board of the Evangelical Environmental Network, has been an outspoken proponent for sustainability. He said the conviction is rooted in a moral obligation created by the disproportionate negative impact climate change will have on the needy.
At the public event announcing the new solar project, Swartzendruber was asked if he would encourage state leaders to enact regulations that would make it easier for more solar and other renewable energy development in Virginia.
“I’m certainly willing to lend my voice where that seems appropriate,” he said later, while adding he has no specific plans to do so at this point (he does, however, regularly interact with leaders in Richmond when he goes to lobby on behalf of state tuition assistance grants).
Gallagher, from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said he was “really excited how strong of a stance [Swartzendruber] appeared to be willing to make on the issue of climate change.”
“You could tell that it was more than just an issue that they were working on just because it’s hot right now, or something that people would want to see [a university] doing,” Gallagher continued. “I work with campuses all over the state… Now when I go to new schools and help them install solar panels, I’m going to point to EMU and say, ‘Look at all the success they’ve had.’ … I think it’s great what they’re doing, and it’s really exciting to see them pushing the boundaries and setting the bar high.”