Earth to Consortium: Where Are The Solar Panels?

(Kyla Smith • The Student Life)

“In my 26 years at the Claremont University Consortium, this is the first time that a student has approached me about solar.”

John Moe, the director of facilities at the Claremont University Consortium, has witnessed the inaugurations of 20 different Claremont College presidents, the launch of Wikipedia, and the invention of the smartphone during his time at the CUC. Not once, though, has a Claremont College student reached out to him about solar panels, even though he is one of the most important players in helping to establish consortium-wide solar.

This is likely because it took over a year of wading through diverging information from staff and faculty throughout the colleges until Sam was finally connected with Moe. Prior to meeting, Sam established connections and met with a project development manager at SolarCity and the CEO of Solar Financing Solutions to understand more about the benefits that solar could provide the colleges.

We then met with Moe to discuss the feasibility of broad-scale solar at the colleges. Through this meeting and subsequent correspondence, we developed a firm understanding of the multitude of reasons for low rates of solar implementation at the colleges. SolarCity and Solar Financing Solutions have had brief discussions with staff at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont McKenna College, and Pomona College, but both companies indicated that it will ultimately require buy-in from college presidents and Boards of Trustees to make consortium-wide solar a reality because they are the ones who would decide whether a proposal is feasible and designate property to house the panels.

As a burgeoning technology, solar is complicated even in the most ideal of situations. With the CUC’s energy contract, though, solar becomes an economic, bureaucratic, and spatial nightmare. Because the CUC is treated as a single, enormous entity, they receive a contract from Southern California Edison (SCE) that puts the proponents of solar in a triple-bind:

First, the current contract is almost unbeatable (from $0.092/kWh to $0.042/kWh in the summer and $0.062/kWh to $0.049/kWh in the winter); next, any renewable-related savings made by an individual college would be redistributed across all the colleges, stifling any economic returns made by that college; finally, if the colleges were to significantly decrease energy demand by using solar, they also would start to lose part of the Base Interruptible Program (BIP) rebate, which is currently around 1/4 of what the colleges pays SCE per month.

The colleges must therefore work together to have any chance of making solar financially justifiable. Yet, even if they started working together, a few complications could still stifle any possible progress. To install enough solar panels to beat the low rate, the colleges would have to construct big on- and off-site solar arrays and install high-tech batteries—a task which would prove difficult because of limited space.

Then again, these difficulties only become deal-breakers when the returns on solar investment are calculated in narrow economic terms. When considering solar thus far, the individual colleges have seemed to brush aside the obvious environmental benefits of solar.

The colleges have also neglected to factor in the less obvious secondary economic benefits. By making an investment in solar, the colleges would establish themselves as legitimate environmental leaders in the world of higher education, and could receive boosts to renown, reputation, and donations.

Throughout our meetings with the CUC, it became very clear that its duty is to provide reliable and cost-efficient energy to the colleges. Any environmental benefit would be a welcome byproduct, but not a compelling factor in decision-making. So, when our recent discussions with SolarCity, Solar Financing Solutions, and Moe concluded that consortium-wide solar is economically unfeasible at the moment, our plan for a swift transition to renewable energy came to a halt.

There are still a few bright spots on the horizon. Keck Graduate Institute does not receive extremely low energy costs because it is not on the CUC’s grid, so solar may be economically feasible; and the CUC’s headquarters may have room for enough solar parking structures to make solar economically feasible. As we continue to work with SolarCity and Solar Financing Solutions to monitor the cost of consortium-wide solar, we will work to prepare the colleges for the not-too-distant date that solar is economically feasible.

HMC, CMC, and Pomona have started this process by installing network-linked, real-time “smart meters,” which monitor energy demand and provide data about electricity use. Smart meters help the colleges by enabling them to do three things: quantify money saved through campus energy efficiency improvements, measure and find ways to decrease energy demand, and install “automated demand response” technology that saves thousands of dollars by limiting energy use during peak hours and interruption events.

In preparation for action toward widespread renewable energy, we as students must continue to demand engaged, competent administrations. We, as students, should persistently instigate connections between faculty and staff throughout the consortium colleges so that, as solar becomes more realistic, the avenues for cooperation already exist.

If you would like to work on making solar panels a reality at the colleges, email Sam Becker at sbecker19@cmc.edu

Sam Becker CM '19 and Chris Wright PO '19 are co-leaders of the 5C Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) chapter.

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