University President Steven Knapp said he is leading a session on solar energy at a climate conference this week, showing how GW’s sweeping sustainability efforts can serve as a model for other schools nationwide.
Knapp, who is attending the two-day conference with American University President Neil Kerwin, is joining hundreds of sustainability experts and other college presidents. Knapp plans to tout GW’s solar initiative as well as its goal to become a zero-waste school.
The summit comes three months after GW and American University committed to deriving half of their power from solar energy. Knapp called the 20-year pledge a “pretty substantial investment” in an interview Tuesday.
“You usually think of universities competing with each other because we’re recruiting students and faculty and athletes. But in this case, we’re collaborating with American to do something that we could not do on our own at the same scale,” Knapp said. “We would not have that much power in the market to really drive innovation. So this is a very innovative arrangement.”
The energy, which will also go to GW Hospital, will come from solar farms in North Carolina through a deal with Duke Energy Renewables. The switch to solar will be about equal to taking 12,500 cars off the road, Knapp said.
“We’re creating a demand, we’re creating a market for solar energy, which will encourage the production of solar energy,” he said.
GW, American and GW Hospital will also pay a fixed rate for solar energy, which Knapp said will save GW money down the line as energy costs rise in the next two decades.
Before American and GW made the commitment, Knapp and Kerwin met with other leaders of D.C. universities and Mayor Vincent Gray two years ago to discuss a city-wide focus on sustainability.
Knapp said he hopes GW’s initiative could spread to other colleges. For example, Northwestern University, one of the schools GW considers its peers, already heats and cools its buildings with geothermal energy.
“I think more universities and other institutions will do similar things around the country that will accelerate the transfer from fossil to other alternative forms of energy,” he said.
Rosalind Jackson, the spokeswoman for the grassroots organization Vote Solar, said universities can take the first steps toward focusing communities on sustainability.
“Universities play a huge role in their local communities, and leadership on renewable energy can have a meaningful positive impact on public and environmental health for those communities,” Jackson said.
Making sustainability a commitment at a university-wide level will also signal the importance of those issues to students, who can take steps to reduce their own footprints, said Jane Davidson, a renewable energy professor at the University of Minnesota’s mechanical engineering department.
“It represents forward-thinking that the students at the university can carry forward for years to come. It’s a nice way to demonstrate what can be done,” Davidson said. “[The initiatives] will have a lot of visibility with people that work there and young people there.”
The commitment to solar energy is just one way the University has implemented its sustainability goals and comes after administrators set ambitious goals like slashing carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2025. Knapp, who lived on a sustainable farm before coming to GW, has made green efforts a focus since arriving at the University in 2007.
Two years ago, officials also outlined goals to reduce the University’s footprint over the next decade, like adding green space to campus, reducing carbon emissions and becoming a zero-waste school through composting and recycling.
The University has installed solar panels in Shenkman Hall, 1959 E St. and Building JJ in the last three years. GW also built a solar-powered walkway on the Virginia Science and Technology Campus.
Aside from solar power, the University has poured more than $11 million into upgrading the decades-old heating and cooling systems in buildings like Gelman Library and Lisner Auditorium.
Several sites on campus, like the Milken Institute School of Public Health, have roofs covered by several inches of grass to help remove pollutants and cut heating and cooling costs.
Tom Eggert, a sustainability and environmental leadership professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said while it is important for schools to set standards for energy use, officials should focus on saving energy instead of investing in expensive infrastructure on old buildings.
“It makes no sense to buy all this great green energy and then waste it through leaky windows, doors, no insulation. Instead of investing in green energy up front, invest in the ways we could save energy,” Eggert said.
Brianna Gurciullo and Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.