How higher education is powering the renewables market

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How higher education is powering the renewables market

Wind turbine image by bahri altay via Shutterstock.

Climate change is an enormous challenge that affects all countries and sectors of the economy.

Within a complex climate and energy scenario, every industry has a role to play, including higher education. One strategy gaining traction among universities across the nation is the use of long-term power purchase agreements (PPAs) with renewable energy providers to shrink schools' carbon footprints and improve their bottom lines.

The long-term wind power contract of three universities was the subject of a recent webinar hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Green Power Partnership (GPP) and Second Nature, a nonprofit that promotes sustainability in higher education.

Ohio State University (OSU), a large public university of more than 55,000 students, for example, projects nearly $1 million in energy cost savings due to their recently signed PPA. As of November 2012, OSU's Columbus campus has bought 50 megawatts of energy annually through a 20-year contract with Blue Creek Wind Farm, Ohio's largest commercial wind farm. It is expected to reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions by around 66,000 tons annually, which accounts for approximately 9 percent of total emissions.

To gain more insight into the potential role for higher education in the green energy market, I turned to Blaine Collison, GPP's program director who provides technical and procedural knowledge that schools need to navigate market barriers.

Gabriela Boscio: What is the importance of focusing on higher education and green power?

Blaine Collison: Higher education can be a transformative sector for U.S. green power. Higher education's operational, organizational and financial characteristics, as well as its set of stakeholders, give it striking opportunities in the marketplace to access a compelling series of benefits for itself, its stakeholders and society at large.

Wind turbine image by bahri altay via Shutterstock.

Also, when looking at climate change in the United States and the clean energy portfolio, higher education is the best-positioned sector to influence green energy production, and along the way, help us all realize unbelievably important greenhouse gas and environmental performance savings and improvements. That is why higher education is an important part of our focus with the GPP program.

Boscio: Apart from PPAs, what are other innovative ways in which higher ed is tackling renewable energy on their campuses?

Collison: Great question. Let me answer that by providing a few examples. We're seeing schools starting to come together to collaborate on green power procurements; reducing administrative and transaction costs and barriers. We're seeing schools engage their host communities to create Green Power Communities and to expand green power purchasing. Our partner, the University of Iowa, is trucking in waste oat hulls from a nearby Quaker Oats facility to use as a biomass energy source. Several technical and community colleges are installing wind turbines to help power their campuses and also utilizing them as a teaching tool for students pursuing engineering and technical careers in the wind industry.  

Boscio: How can the business community benefit or learn from higher ed's efforts?

Collison: Go long. If you look at the GPP's long-term contracts list, you'll see that higher ed is a significant percentage of the Green Power Partners that have made long-term green power procurements. This can be one of the most valuable and effective strategies in the voluntary green power market.  

Boscio: GPP partners with nearly 120 higher ed institutions. What are other outstanding partners the EPA's GPP is working with?

BC: We currently have more than 1,400 partner organizations, including everything from Fortune 500 companies to small and medium-sized businesses and local, state and federal governments. These partners collectively use more than 27 billion kWh of green power annually, which is equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions from electricity use of more than 2.8 million average American homes.

Wind turbine image by bahri altay via Shutterstock.