RICHMOND, Va. -- The University of Richmond is on a fast track to become the first higher education institution in the region to account for 100 percent of electricity needs with clean, solar energy.
It's an accomplishment that simply wouldn't have been possible just five years ago, but a gradual decrease in the cost of materials used to build solar panels paired with an increase in government incentives has enabled the university to soon produce heaps of sustainable energy; equivalent to the annual electricity use of 49,099 homes.
"The interaction between the financial, social and environmental is very real when it comes to energy development - and that's what sustainability is all about -- making sure that those three pillars are all considered when making decisions," said Director of Sustainability Rob Andrejewski. "Five years ago this wouldn't have been feasible, but solar is quickly approaching grid parity."
As explained by Andrejewski, grid parity occurs when the cost of renewable energy is on par with the cost of traditional energy.
A variety of factors contribute to grid parity, like the cost of silicon (which the panels are traditionally made with) plummeting, incentives for solar energy by the federal and state government rising, and a marked increase in the number of people working to develop solar.
According to Andrejewski, these factors all greatly reduce the cost of developing solar - as well as the cost of transmitting and distributing the energy.
"This is an amazing opportunity and we're really excited about it, but we need to change our behaviors, too. We need more green energy, we need to stop emissions, and we need to take ownership here."
Through a partnership with sPower, the largest private owners of solar assets in the United States, the university is in the process of constructing a 20MW, 47,000 panel solar array in Spotsylvania County, 50 miles away from campus. The array requires 130 acres of space, more than one third of the size of University of Richmond's campus.
For every megawatt hour of electricity used on campus, the array will add an equivalent amount of renewable solar energy back into the Virginia electricity grid - a practice that will neutralize carbon emissions across the state.
"The way that we can show that [neutralization] is - for every megawatt hour of electricity produced by a renewable energy facility, a renewable energy credit (REC) is produced. And that renewable energy credit is a market-based mechanism that we can claim," Andrejewski explained
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, RECs are issued when one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity is generated and delivered to the electricity grid from a renewable energy resource.
To determine how much solar energy is needed to neutralize emissions, Andrejewski said the university has to meticulously measure how much energy is used on campus through electricity, as well as the carbon emitted by students traveling to school.
"That electricity comes from Dominion [Energy] and it will continue to come from Dominion," Andrejewski said. "And the electricity used, based on mix of fuels, has a certain amount of emissions. So by acquiring 20 megawatt solar array, we can add the same amount of clean energy."
"We're not using any less electricity, but societally everything gets plugged in, so we need to figure out how to increase the electric generation on the grid and doing that in a clean way."
And while producing enough clean energy to neutralize emission may sound expensive, Andrejewski said it actually costs about the same as buying normal electricity.
Through a financial arrangement called a Contract for Difference, the university guaranteed a rate, based off of prior electricity usage, that will then be settled at the end of each month. That rate, in turn, allows sPower to have guaranteed funding in order to develop the solar array.
"We agreed upon a rate that is very close to current energy rates, so we're comfortable with it especially because we are pretty confident current energy rates will go up," Andrejewski said. "We have essentially locked in a price that we'll pay for the solar energy so if our rates go up, the amount of money that (the solar energy) is worth will also go up."
To Andrejewski, the enriched learning opportunities that the partnership provides are even more exciting than the prospect of adding solar energy back into the grid.
"We want to allow our students to work with the developer to understand not just how solar energy is produced, but also the business and policy considerations," Andrejewski said. "And all of those things are available for us to study in a very real way as it's going on."
sPower is offering research grants, internships and interactive learning opportunities to students at the University who are wanting to take a deep dive into the complex world of renewable energy. "For us to achieve our carbon neutrality will be a very big deal for us - and this project is a really big deal for us - if our students don't know about it and can't learn from it then we've missed a huge opportunity."