The Sustainable Campus (Trends and Innovations)
Solar, Minus the Investment
- By Pamela Gorsuch
- March 1st, 2017
More than 4,000 solar modules are now
helping to power the main campus of Towson University
(TU), a large public university located outside
of Baltimore. The project was the first of its kind for the campus,
and its successful completion in the fall of 2016 culminated several
years of planning and development.
Though solar projects offer financial and environmental rewards,
they can be difficult to launch because they involve significant
upfront investment and long-term payback. Towson University’s
solar project got serious attention when it was championed
by the Student Government Association. The students worked with
TU energy manager Steve Kolb to assemble supporting data, then
presented their case to the university’s president and executive
council. The council greenlighted the project, but with one caveat:
zero upfront costs.
Then came the challenge. To avoid upfront costs, Kolb and his
colleagues — including two of the students who initially pitched
the project — elected a power purchase agreement (PPA) as the
project’s funding model.
Putting Together a PPA
A PPA requires a different procurement approach than a
standard agreement, demanding a solid statement of work and a
comprehensive, well-thought-out request for proposal (RFP). The
university’s energy, legal and procurement departments worked
together to craft an RFP that would attract bidders who were
qualified both financially and technically, mapping optimal campus
locations for solar production to enable effective evaluation of
“We insisted upon bidders with university experience, solid
financial backing and familiarity with PPAs,” says Kolb. “Technical
qualifications had to be top-notch, since installation required
structural engineering work in the core of campus. And the price
had to be comparable to our current energy price or it wouldn’t
make financial sense.”
The procurement effort paid off. After thoroughly vetting the
proposals, TU selected WGL Energy Services, Inc., a Washington
Gas Light entity, as the lead, with its partner SGC Power handling
panel engineering and installation. The financial model is a 20-year PPA, with WGL responsible for financing and TU paying a
fixed rate for the power produced. The rate is lower than TU’s price
for conventional electricity, and savings will increase over time as
electricity prices rise.
Installing the Panels
During the summer of 2016, the panels were installed on the
roofs of Towson University’s General Services building, the Barton
and Douglass residence halls, the University Union and the showpiece
installation: a solar canopy atop the Union Garage. Construction
involved raising the heavy, 3-foot-by-6-foot solar panels onto
rooftops using cranes, then wiring each panel together and tying it
into TU’s main electrical system.
Electricity produced by the solar panels goes directly toward
powering TU buildings. As a result, the campus requires less
power from off-campus sources, especially during times of peak
demand when electricity costs are higher.
“Peak energy demand is highest on the hottest days of the year,
and that’s also when solar output is typically at its highest,” says
Kolb. “Thus the solar panels reduce stress from the grid during key
times and reduce total electricity costs.”
The solar panels produce varying amounts of energy based on
the weather and time of day. On a sunny summer day, the panels
can produce as much as 8 to 10 percent of the campus electrical
load. A dedicated division at Washington Gas Light continuously
monitors the panels’ production to look for maintenance needs
and ensure the panels are working optimally.
The panels are performing well and are expected to generate nearly
2,000 megawatt hours of solar energy per year, or enough energy
to power the campus’ student union. That will equate to saving more
than 23,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next 20 years, the
same as removing nearly 5,000 cars from the road for one year.
“This project could not have been more successful,” Kolb says.
“From procurement to installation to monitoring, our staff and
our vendors were knowledgeable, professional and top-notch in
how they managed and executed the project. The hard work has
paid off in a productive system.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of College Planning & Management.
Pamela Gorsuch is communications manager for Towson University. Founded in 1866, Towson University (www.towson.edu) is among the nation’s best regional public universities, offering more than 100 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs in the liberal arts and sciences and applied professional fields. Towson combines research-based learning with practical application and its many interdisciplinary partnerships with public and private organizations throughout Maryland provide opportunities for research, internships and jobs. U.S. News & World Report has ranked Towson University one of the nation’s best and most efficiently run universities.