A Brighter Future

University of Richmond’s next strategic plan – a document that lays out the goals and mission of the university for a 7-year period – is still in development, but for the first time, it will include stewardship and sustainability among the wording of this essential document, Rob Andrejewski, campus director of sustainability, said. In line with Richmond’s continued efforts toward carbon neutrality, the university began a plan two years ago to install solar panels on campus.

Seven-hundred forty-nine new solar panels have been installed on the roof of the Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness. These panels, which cover 22,000 square feet of rooftop, are expected to generate 237,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, potentially offsetting the emission of 364,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. Approximately 1 percent of campus electricity will now be derived from this source.

Our campus climate action plan aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, Andrejewski said. Such a goal is quite ambitious, but he said he would like us to come up with new solutions to get to that goal even sooner. The solar array is one step towards achieving that goal, but it does so while keeping academic research in mind.

Of the 749 panels on the roof, 529 are Bisun bifacial panels, and 220 are monofacial panels. Andrew Harrison, a photovoltaic technician for Shockoe Solar who installed the panels, said that the monofacial panels are typical panels that capture sunlight from the top-face of the panel. Bifacial panels are different, in that they are partially transparent, and can capture sunlight that reflects onto the back of the panel. These bifacial panels are more efficient at capturing ambient light, he said, but not much is known about their practical efficiency when installed. Testing has shown that they may be as much as 25 percent more efficient than traditional monofacial panels, but the data collected by our university will be used to validate or refute this theory.

The bifacial and monofacial panels were installed on both a gravel and a white roof to test the relative efficiency of each. Also being tested are string inverters and microinverters. Microinverters collect the energy individually from each panel, while string inverters do so for a whole line of panels. Microinverters are thought to be more efficient, because the shading of one panel does not affect the production of its neighbor, Harrison said. However, this style of inverter is also more expensive – better data is needed to see if the improved efficiency can justify the increased cost. The solar panel array thus gives students the chance to do ample statistical and environmental sciences research on-campus.

Both technological and policy improvements made this type of project viable for the university, Mary Finley-Brook, a professor of geography and the environment, said. The solar panel market has taken off in the last couple of years, and we as a country are now researching ways to improve solar efficiency, she said. These gains are coming later than some would like, but what is exciting about the bifacial panels is that it marks a step forward, Finley-Brook said.

Similarly, the power-purchase pilot program, legislated in 2013, makes this type of project financially and legally viable. Because Virginia is an energy-regulated state, it was previously impossible for solar companies to sell solar energy because of the monopoly of utility companies. Thus, the solar market was limited to the purchase of panels. To put this into perspective, Andrejewski gave this analogy: If your phone bill cost $100 per month, but you had to pay for your 2-year contract up front, it would cost you $2,400 to get the phone. Few people would be able to pay these upfront costs. Similarly, solar panels typically pay for themselves after 15 to 20 years, but last for 30 to 50 years. It’s a good investment in the long run, but few could afford to pay a 20-year electricity bill up front. This power-purchase agreement allows for the electricity itself to be purchased, without the up-front costs.

Andrejewski predicted that the solar array would start saving the university money in just a few years, as fossil-fuel electricity becomes more expensive. Richmond is locked into a fixed rate for the solar electricity, so the project is a smart investment for both ecological and economic reasons, Andrejewski said.

Harrison said that approximately half of the customers of Shockoe Solar were politically conservative, and purchased panels simply because of the economic bottom line. Though people will find reasons to argue against the normative support for renewable energy, Harrison said, it’s hard to argue numbers, and solar is becoming increasingly more affordable.

The project has generated excitement, and has also been accompanied by complementary campus events, such as the Power Dialogue held on April 8. The Power Dialogue allowed students from across the state to ask questions of the Department of Environmental Quality representatives and other environmental actors. The student panel, organized by Mia Hagerty, president of Westhampton College Government Association, empowered students to exchange ideas to promote real action, changing the perspective of those involved, Hagerty said. “State officials learned that college students were capable and willing to engage in these discussions, and college students learned that there is space for their opinions in these discussions,” Hagerty said.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the array, held on April 19, similarly brought influential figures to campus, most notably Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

The solar array marks the beginning of continued sustainability projects on campus, but we must also keep in mind that attaining 1 percent of our electricity through these means is not significant enough to generate complacency, Finley-Brooke said. “The solar project is an important step symbolically, and for student education,” Finley-Brook said, “But it should always make you look at energy use more broadly.” If the university were able to reduce its total load and consumption, that same array would suddenly produce proportionally more of our electricity, Finley-Brook said. She suggested several areas for reduction in energy consumption, including reducing light-pollution from 24-hour stadium lights, as well as day-to-day changes in student and faculty behavior. Students often feel that because of their large tuition bill, it is fully acceptable to do a load of laundry with a single article of clothing inside, or to leave the lights on when leaving their dorm rooms, Finley-Brook said. However, these small actions add up to both increased energy consumption and increased tuition bills, something most students do not consider, she said.

However, the impact of the solar array should not be minimized simply because the proportion of electricity produced is currently low. “I think it’s huge,” Andrejewski said. “For us to be able to do this in a state where this was illegal to do just a couple of years ago is an amazing thing. I wouldn’t minimize it. 1 percent of our electricity is still 237,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. It’s a really big deal, and it’s just the beginning. The first doesn’t usually mean the last. I would like to blanket every flat roof on campus with solar.”

Shockoe Solar echoed this sentiment. “People say, ‘Well you’re only 1 percent solar right now,’” Harrison said, “Good, then we only have 99 percent more to go! Now I know how much more I’ve got to do. It’s cool to be doing something that’s new that you can share with people.”

The energy generated by this project has been felt by much of the student body. “I think it’s an amazing project and I really think that it’s going to trigger our campus to continue new developments to becoming more sustainable,” junior Walid Alatas said. “Solar energy is one of the ways to take action and can help us decrease our carbon emissions.”

Andrejewski said that the visibility of the project was in part responsible for the level of attention it has received. “There’s so much energy and interest right now – people want to know more. This solar array isn’t the main thing we’re doing towards achieving our sustainability goals, but everything else is behind the scenes. Changing lightbulbs doesn’t create a news story, nor does efficient heating and energy. But this array is super cool – it’s like magic, to convert the sun’s energy into electricity that can then power our lives. It’s a very visible symbol of our commitment, which then allows us to tell other stories about our sustainability goals.”

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