Guest Blogger: Are American Colleges Living Labs for Renewable-Energy Use?

Niles Barnes, November’s Buildings & Grounds guest blogger, is projects coordinator for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. While he was a student at the University of Kentucky, he worked with both the university’s residence-life sustainability program and with its environmental club, UK Greenthumb.

Niles Barnes

Niles Barnes

Barely a day goes by that I don’t read a report or see a media story describing college and university campuses as “living laboratories” — the idea being that higher education invents, tests, and helps perfect new and emerging technologies, and by doing so, contributes to creating a future in which we all eventually will live.

The metaphor is useful because it easily and accurately conveys the importance, responsibility, and power higher education has in society. Through my work with the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, I’m keenly interested in the contributions colleges are making to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions through the use of renewable energy. Are U.S. colleges at the forefront of innovation when it comes to using renewable energy to power their physical plants? What are some of the innovations colleges have made recently? Are they in fact the living laboratories that many of us like to assume they are?

There are encouraging signs when it comes to renewable-energy use on campuses. The number of renewable-energy projects continues to grow. With solar electric and thermal systems installed at Wright Community College, Colorado State University’s plans to build 25 wind turbines, and Drury University’s geothermal heating and cooling system, 2007 was a big year for renewable energy on campuses. A recent report from the financial-services firm J.P. Morgan estimates that by 2011 the United States will surpass Germany as the world’s largest market for solar power. American colleges and universities are actively playing a role in this growth. As detailed in the 2007 AASHE Digest, at least 26 separate campuses had installed, or had near-term plans to install, solar technology that year.

There are also encouraging signs from colleges that have installed wind-power capacity. Portland State University has installed four vertical-axis turbines on its urban campus. The University of Maine at Presque Isle has plans for a turbine that will produce enough electricity to supply more than a quarter of its campus needs. In addition, at least 36 separate institutions have installed wind turbines on their campuses.

And some colleges are trying out creative new forms of renewable energy. The University of New Hampshire is piping gas from a nearby landfill to replace conventional natural gas as the primary fuel in its cogeneration plant. This landfill gas will meet 80 to 85 percent of the university’s energy needs. At $45-million, the landfill-gas project is thought to be the first and largest undertaken by a university.

At the University of California at Davis, researchers in biological and agricultural engineering have developed a Biogas Energy Project that takes organic matter and processes it into two gases (methane and hydrogen) that can be used for energy production. This “anaerobic phased solids digester” technology has the potential to process eight tons of leftover food, grass clippings, animal manure, and rice straw into clean energy each week — and it also reduces the amount of waste going to a landfill.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts is developing collectors that would capture the heat absorbed by pavements and convert it into a viable energy source. That would permit thousands of miles of roadways and parking lots in the United States to serve as an inexpensive sources of electricity and heat water. If successful, such technology could both harness clean energy and also reduce the heat-island effect found in many urban areas.

But I’m still left feeling that colleges could be doing much more to fulfill the living laboratory concept. The examples at the University of New Hampshire, UC Davis and Worcester Polytechnic raise eyebrows, but why aren’t there more? Where is the research and testing for other, less-traditional renewable-energy sources? Don’t get me wrong — solar, wind, geothermal, and bio-fuel technologies are important and will certainly play roles in our long-term energy mix. I’m not discounting colleges’ work in employing, testing, and refining these technologies.

What worries me is that I don’t see much happening with renewable-energy sources such as ocean thermal, ocean current, or tidal power. Is it cost that is holding back development of these and other potential resources?

I’m interested in hearing from others who may be involved in or know of other innovative and creative renewable-energy projects on campuses. What else is being studied, installed, or perhaps flying under the radar? Will the United States, through the leadership of colleges and universities, reach the goal of achieving all renewable electricity production by 2018, as Al Gore has advocated? Is there specific legislation that the next administration will need to support to encourage the development of the necessary infrastructure? —Niles Barnes

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