Pomona College Navigates Solar Energy Costs and Usage

Although the solar panels on Sontag Hall and Pomona Hall were not functional for over six months after the buildings’ grand opening in the summer of 2011, the panels now offset electricity use in the residence halls by 15.5 percent, and their solar thermal energy heats about 80 percent of the buildings’ water, according to Ginny Routhe, Director of the Sustainability Integration Office (SIO) at Pomona College.

Following the construction of the buildings, the solar panels were not operational until Jan. 2012 due to the long coordination process that must occur between Southern California Edison (SCE), a branch of Edison International that generates and distributes electricity, with each new solar array that is installed. SCE requires a number of questions to be answered and agreements made before allowing the solar panels to be “on the grid,” which took approximately a year for the North Campus solar array, according to Routhe.

Julia Pitkin PO ’13, a co-leader of Pomona for Environmental Activism and Responsibility, said that the solar panels do not produce a lot of energy and that they can actually cost the school money. She explained that all of the 5Cs share one, “interruptible” rate, which decreases when more infrastructure, like solar panels, is added to it. Therefore, Pomona’s addition of solar panels increases costs for the other schools, and Pomona must pay the difference, meaning Pomona does not make money off of the solar panels. Pitkin, however, cited other benefits to having the panels.

“The benefits are that [the solar panels] are using energy created by the sun and not relying on fossil fuels,” Pitkin said. “It’s a statement and a symbol of Pomona’s commitment to sustainability.”

Electrical Engineer Associate with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) Daniel Novoa, P.E., said that solar panels typically cannot meet all the energy requirements of a building, although he emphasized the long life the panels have.

“Your solar generation is probably very minimal compared to the energy that the building needs,” Novoa said. “A solar panel system [has a] minimum 25 years of system life. There are some systems that have been around for longer than 25 years and are still generating.”

Pomona geology professor Richard Hazlett, who has extensive experience with solar energy at his personal residence, said that solar panels can sometimes cause aesthetic problems. Hazlett said that more energy-efficient buildings often appear more modern, and thus there can be difficulties between those nostalgic for the older-style buildings and those who promote sustainable designs.

“Pomona, like most facilities in the modern U.S., buys its buildings for 20-, 30-, maybe 50-year lifetimes. When the construction is done, that’s when the decisions are made regarding new, innovative energy,” Hazlett said. “The college is looking at retrofitting for solar, and doing that involves tinkering with the design. There’s a bit of a cultural tension in terms of the simple appearance of the campus.”

Hazlett said that although sustainable designs may be costly at first, they have continued impact on the environment, unlike one-time large events that come and go.

In May 2010, the SIO put together a document titled “Green Building Standards,” which required all new buildings to meet at least gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification standards. Routhe said that because of these green building policies, essentially all new construction designs will incorporate solar panels.

According to Routhe, the new Grounds and Housekeeping building received the LEED gold paperwork and is working with SCE to get its solar array up and running.

LEED, administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, provides certification of certified, silver, gold, or platinum according to how many points a project earns. Points are earned from having various features, including solar panels or materials that do not give off toxic substances.

In addition to the cost of constructing Sontag and Pomona Halls, the first residence halls in the state to receive LEED platinum certification, the LEED certification process for the halls cost $73,000, according to Routhe. This cost included four on-site, sustainability-related workshops ($22,000), an energy simulation ($35,000), and the LEED documentation itself ($16,000).

Despite its cost, Routhe said that LEED provides a standardized way of looking at sustainable buildings and added that its primary goal at Pomona is to ensure sustainable construction and operation.

“We could all put down our own sustainability standards and claim to be building sustainably, whereas our sustainability standards would be different,” Routhe said. “It’s a way of getting all of the colleges and universities who participate in LEED on the same page and speak in the same language when they say that the building is sustainable.”

Novoa, who works with the Solar Power Engineering Group at LADWP, said that despite the certification process, he does not believe that anyone comes to check that systems in LEED-certified buildings are working.

Routhe said that the future holds more renewable energy on campus.

“The President’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability is taking a hard look at what it would take to go carbon neutral, and it will involve increasing our renewable energy dramatically, so we need to be coming up with some creative ways to do that,” she said.

Pitkin also mentioned the need to move beyond just solar panels and examine other forms of renewable energy.

“Seeing as we are in sunny California, solar panels are the most applicable renewable energy to where we are, but the more variety of renewables that you have, the stronger energy portfolio you can have,” Pitkin said. “So I think we should explore other options as new technologies develop.”

The public can browse real-time information about energy usage and generation on Pomona’s campus at buildingdashboard.net/pomona.

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