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Rooftop solar panels decreased GW’s carbon emissions, saved thousands in energy costs

Danielle Towers | Assistant Photo Editor
University spokesperson Crystal Nosal said the urban setting of Foggy Bottom limits the space GW has to install solar panels.

Updated: Oct. 19, 2021 at 9:12 a.m.

GW has prevented 90 passenger vehicles worth of yearly carbon dioxide emissions from being released into the atmosphere after installing solar panels on five campus rooftops last May.

Officials said the University has stopped 450 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering Earth’s atmosphere and saved more than $50,000 since officials installed solar panels on the rooftops of six University buildings last May. Sustainability experts said the amount of carbon emissions the University has reduced is small compared to the amount of carbon released yearly, but installing solar panels is a critical first step to lowering GW’s carbon footprint.

University spokesperson Crystal Nosal said the solar panels – which were constructed on top of the Smith Center, Lisner Auditorium, the School of Media and Public Affairs and Monroe, Funger and Duques halls – are increasing solar electricity across the District and that the University is using the rooftop installations to their “maximum potential.”

“The University does its best with the space it has,” Nosal said in an email. “Consistent with GW’s carbon neutrality target and its commitment to developing, piloting and demonstrating models for urban sustainability, GW pursued solar photovoltaic panels on multiple rooftops to increase renewable energy on campus and provide an opportunity for innovation.”

Nosal said officials will install a rooftop solar system on Thurston Hall once the University finishes its current renovation of the residence hall by fall 2022.

Nosal said New Columbia Solar, a solar energy company based in the District, owns the panel system on the University’s rooftops. The D.C. Department of Energy and Environment helped fund the installation after making $8 million available to install new solar capacity on commercial buildings and non-residential surface spaces in the District in 2017.

Nosal said the partnership with New Columbia Solar builds on the University’s 2015 Capital Partners Solar Project – a collaboration with Duke Energy Renewables, a renewable energy company based in North Carolina. She said the University receives half its electricity from solar panels in three farms in North Carolina through the project.

The Board of Trustees voted in June 2020 to move up GW’s timeline to become carbon neutral to 2030, 10 years earlier than the original deadline, and aspires to cancel out all greenhouse gas emissions the University has produced since its founding in 1821.

American University installed more than 2,150 solar panels on six campus buildings in 2011, and Georgetown University has a solar array of six row houses with carbon benefits equivalent to removing 44 cars off the road a year.

Nosal said Foggy Bottom’s urban setting limits the amount of space for the University to install “extensive solar arrays” on its campus, but GW will continue to expand its focus on renewable energy.

“The University will continue to try to increase its campus renewable energy portfolio at other buildings,” Nosal said.

Sustainability experts said the University’s rooftop installation is a critical first step in eliminating carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. The United States emitted 4.57 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year.

Scott Sklar, the sustainable energy director at GW’s Environmental Energy and Management Institute, said 80 percent of GW’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy use in buildings across all three of the University’s campuses. He said the University should continue installing solar panels, which will increase “energy efficiency.”

“It reduces the carbon footprint obviously because it is offsetting generator electricity, and it is a pretty big use of solar energy in downtown Washington D.C.,” Sklar said.

Sklar said the University should be “very proud of” installing solar panels as an economic choice.

He said the 450 metric tons of carbon dioxide that the University prevented from entering the atmosphere is equivalent to eliminating 100,000 miles of driving per year.

Sklar said administrators should provide professors with real-time data about GW’s energy consumption, so faculty can share that information with students in urban studies and engineering classes. He said the University should also post signs along the streets on campus to promote its solar panel installations so students and professors are aware of GW’s energy and financial savings.

“I’d love to see some signage along the street outside the building, so when you are looking at the building you can see a picture of the rooftop with the solar on it with a little information about it,” Sklar said.

Harvey Bryan, the former director of the Solar Energy Engineering Program at Arizona State University, said the 450 tons of carbon dioxide the University saved is “not that large” of a number compared to the millions of tons of carbon dioxide that are in the atmosphere.

Bryan said the 650,000 kilowatt hours of energy that the University has generated since the rooftop installations is also relatively small compared to GW’s total consumption, totaling “several million” kilowatt hours. But he said every small step can still help.

“It’s a good start, and it all contributes to dealing with reducing greenhouse emissions and helping the environment,” Bryan said.

Wayne Johnson – a key segment manager focused on education at Duke Energy Sustainable Solutions, a company specializing in sustainable energy – said the University is generating a “substantial number” of kilowatt hours with the solar panel installations. He said officials should consider which sustainable energy projects, like mechanical upgrades, yield the best return when deciding whether to expand their rooftop solar panel installations.

“If the space is limited and the construction costs are high, you might say, ‘Look, the same amount of money that could be spent on that project might yield better results, doing a mechanical upgrade, or a controls upgrade, or an analytics upgrade,’ because saving energy really is just as good if not better than generating it,” Johnson said.

He said implementing solar panels entails “complicating factors,” like cost and performance. He said the University should pick buildings that are the most expensive to operate when trying to spread solar panels or implement other energy saving initiatives.

Johnson said every kilowatt hour the University generates through the solar panels is beneficial in reducing the carbon footprint.

“It’s not always about making huge chunks but continuing taking step after step to improve it,” Johnson said. “I think what you’ve outlined in this project is obviously a pretty good step forward.”

This post has been updated to correct the following:
The Hatchet misnamed the owner of GW’s solar panels as New Columbia Star. Its correct name is New Columbia Solar.  This post was also updated to clarify that the University currently receives half its electricity from solar panels in three farms in North Carolina. The Hatchet incorrectly reported that GW receives this electricity as part of its work with New Columbia Solar. The University’s 2015 Capital Partners Solar Project, a collaboration with Duke Energy Renewables, provides this electricity. We regret these errors.

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