GW looks to expand solar, wind power in push to reduce coal dependency

Correction appended

The Office of Sustainability is taking steps to purchase more solar panels and partner with engineering professors to build a small-scale wind turbine this year, as GW tries to reduce its dependence on coal power over the next decade.

The solar panels would heat campus water systems and capture rays for electricity, Director of the Office of Sustainability Meghan Chapple-Brown said. GW will go forward with the plan if costs and zoning regulations are favorable, which would make it will be the first time the University uses solar energy for electricity on a larger scale, after having used solar panels on three residence halls to heat the buildings’ water for the past two years.

While the office is still working out details and will put out a request for proposal this academic year, the move would put GW on track to reach its ambitious goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2040.

The solar panels would be the newest added since GW first began collecting solar energy in 2011 with rooftop installations on Ivory Tower, 1959 E St. and Building JJ.

Those panels collect enough power to heat most of each building’s water use the year. In the last three years, the system saved a total of about 300 tons of carbon dioxide, said Shannon Ross, a coordinator in the sustainability office – which is equivalent to the energy use of 14 homes for one year.

The University’s Climate Action Plan, released three years ago, also calls for the campus to produce 10 percent of its own low-carbon energy technology by 2040.

The two renewable energy projects are part of a massive University-wide sustainability plan, which sets goals for GW to grow its own food, produce zero waste and eventually stop producing carbon altogether.

Going carbon-neutral is the most important step GW can take to become a more sustainable college – and to jump in national rankings of green colleges, said Avital Andrews, an environmental expert who is an editor for the Sierra Club’s magazine.

“Climate change is probably the most dire environmental issue that we face right now – not that water pollution and landfills aren’t a huge problem as well, but it’s what we’re most concerned about,” Andrews said. “We’d love to see as much solar as possible.”

And boosting GW’s sustainability score is a big priority for the University, Chapple-Brown said.

Five years ago, the Sierra Club named GW one of the nation’s least eco-friendly schools. That failing score came a year after University President Knapp arrived at GW with sustainability as one of his highest priorities.

This year, GW crept onto the list of the top 25 green schools, coming in at No. 23.

GW, though, lags behind competitor schools such as American University, which is on track to become carbon neutral in just seven years. In addition to converting solar power into electricity, AU has the largest solar-powered water heating system in the District. It also converts used cooking oil from its dining halls into electricity.

Andrews, who has studied colleges’ uses of renewable energy, said it can take years for schools to make broad changes in their energy consumption, but that process can be sped up if an administration fully buys into the plan.

“It seems like something that can happen quickly if schools put their mind to it, and especially if there’s a demand from students and alumni,” Andrews said. “They can make it happen quickly if they want to.”

The types of clean energy a school uses depends on its location and what resources it has available, Andrews said. The University of Washington, for example, which sits on a bay that opens into the Pacific Ocean, is almost entirely hydro-powered.

Solar panels are more suited to city life, especially in D.C., which sees lots of sunlight and heat almost daily, Andrews said. She noted that the White House recently added more solar panels to its roof.

As GW tries to use alternative sources of energy, it is also going through a multi-million dollar effort to upgrade the electric and heating systems in the University’s buildings. The project, dubbed the “eco-building program,” began last year and will reduce energy use in each upgraded building by 15 percent.

This story was updated on Aug. 29 at 5 p.m. to reflect the following:

The Hatchet incorrectly reported that definite plans were in place for GW to add solar panels. GW is actually still in the planning stages.

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