George Washington University plans bright future with solar energy

In the heart of bustling Washington, D.C., land is at a premium. Here in Foggy Bottom, where the George Washington University (GW) sits just blocks from the White House, we would never have the land—or roof space—to build enough solar panels to sustainably power our institution and significantly reduce our carbon footprint. Our neighbors in a three-mile radius—startup OPower, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the World Bank—face the same problem, which is increasingly exacerbated by the fact that more and more people are moving into urban areas around the world.

How can we sustainably support the power urban institutions need in a climate-constrained world?

Each of us can implement various environmental efficiency measures (GW has nine LEED-certified buildings and a campus-wide building energy efficiency program, for example), but they only go so far in reducing or eliminating our carbon footprint. The answer, we’ve found after engaging in a four-year process and working with two other D.C. institutions, is to receive our “green” power directly from an offsite solar farm. With the hope that we can begin to shift the retail energy market toward greener power, we are showing that large organizations in an urban setting can partner to significantly reduce their carbon footprints.

Capital Partners Solar Project, as we’ve dubbed it, is a partnership among GW, American University (AU) and the George Washington University Hospital (GWUH). Comprising 52 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) power—roughly the amount of electricity used by 8,200 homes every year—it is the largest non-utility solar PV power purchase agreement in the United States in total megawatt hours contracted, and the largest PV project east of the Mississippi River. Duke Energy Renewables (DER) supplies the power.

By 2015, GW will receive more than half of its electricity need from the Capital Partners Solar Project, which will accelerate GW reaching its 2025 carbon reduction goal. The project will create a 30 percent reduction in GW’s emissions associated with its electricity use. Together, the three partners will eliminate 60,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is equivalent to taking roughly 12,500 cars off the road.

The solar power harvested by 243,000 solar panels in North Carolina will move through the state’s electrical grid into the D.C. regional grid, increasing the amount of solar energy in the region.

For the partners, the 20-year agreement will provide fixed pricing for the solar energy at a lower total price than current power solutions and is expected to yield greater economic savings for the partners as traditional power prices are anticipated to increase at a higher rate over the same period.

The project wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our leadership and the collaboration of AU and GWUH.

Gary Farha, president and CEO of CustomerFirst Renewables (which structured the deal with DER), said, “Executive involvement and support is key in moving these projects forward. While the cross-functional team can develop a plan and vet the options and issues, without buy-in and progressive leadership at the highest levels, it is very difficult to make a project of this importance and magnitude happen.”

GW provided the greatest buy-in as the largest purchaser, with about 70 percent of the project’s power. The partners will break ground on the first site this summer, and panels will begin to deliver electricity to GW by the end of the year.

“There are a number of ways to procure renewable power, but what GW and its partners have done with their direct approach is rare and has established a new precedent for sourcing offsite solutions at lower costs and at meaningful volumes, while also protecting themselves from future market price risk,” Farha said.

Alex Perera, renewable energy expert at the World Resources Institute, said the project is a “model” for others.

“GW and its partners have developed a model that directly ties the solar source with their use and payments,” he said. “Their approach could help move the market to more direct sourcing of renewable energy by large retail buyers. This solution could be widely replicated by buyers in the public and private sectors.”

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, added: “This project is a real game changer for a number of reasons. It shows that renewables can be deployed on a scale that really moves the needle for large customers. And it proves, once again, that the clean tech industry is growing. ”

We, with our partners, have proven that a university in the middle of an urban center can directly receive a significant amount of our power from renewable energy. We see this as a great step toward a greener energy future and look forward to other large institutions joining us in combating climate change.

Top image of panels on solar farm by portumen via shutterstock.