The Sustainable Campus (Trends and Innovations)

Solar, Minus the Investment

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 competing offers.

“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.

About the Author

Pamela Gorsuch is communications manager for Towson University. Founded in 1866, Towson University ( 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.

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