"This is the best field trip I've ever been on!" beamed Leah Carriere, moments after disembarking from a Bell 429 helicopter, its rotors winding down behind her. Carriere was one of ten graduate students who joined Chris O'Brien, director of the Office of Sustainability, in Elizabeth City, NC, for a tour of Capital Partners Solar Project, the largest non-utility solar installation east of the Mississippi. The students, from the Kogod School of Business, College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of International Service, visited the largest of three solar power sites that together will provide 50 percent of American University's electricity needs by the end of 2015.
AU's ambitious goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2020 requires the university to devise innovative ways to bring green electricity to the campus. To that end, the arrangement that created the Capital Partners Solar Project is a landmark achievement for type and scope. Teaming up with George Washington University and the George Washington University Hospital, AU brokered a deal with Duke Energy Renewables – the utility company handling power distribution – to create three large solar farms within the three entities' grid system. This means that while the actual electrons created by the solar panels will be used in and around Elizabeth City, they in turn reduce demand for coal and gas-fired "brown" energy in the same grid system from which AU and its partners at George Washington draw their power. This switch is equivalent to taking 12,500 cars off the road annually.
The deal also makes financial sense for AU and its partners. Traditional, extraction-based power generation faces market volatility and increasing regulatory pressure. The cost of the raw materials for brown power generation can be quite high and make unpredictable swings. Sunlight is free. The 20-year deal with Duke provides fixed-commodity pricing at a rate lower than the current mix of "brown" sources of electricity. Factoring in an increase in brown power prices over time, the solar purchase could yield $14 million in total savings throughout the 20-year deal.
AU currently buys renewable energy credits (RECs) equivalent to 100 percent of its electricity. But those RECs are from a mix of projects across the U.S. and those sources change over time. Those RECs are "unbundled" from the green power that produces them. By committing to purchase the power and the RECs from the Capital Partners Solar Project, AU has locked in its green power supply for two decades at a fixed price. In this way, the supplier is guaranteed to have a customer, which reduces risk and results in a better price.
"In addition to securing our own green power supply, the bigger benefit of this project is that it can be used for education," according to O'Brien. "AU's own carbon footprint is small when compared to the climate challenge as a whole. But if we can teach students to understand the opportunities created by this challenge, they can replicate projects like this one, and innovate new solutions of their own. That is where an educational institution can really have an impact."
The students on the field trip are studying sustainability in various disciplines, including business, science, policy, and development. They met with representatives from Duke Energy Renewables and SunEnergy1, the contractor handling construction. Sustainability faculty and staff from Elizabeth City State University also joined the group to learn how the University of North Carolina system of schools might replicate this landmark deal to provide renewable energy for their own campuses.
The students also looked forward to touring the installation site. However, their enthusiasm turned to excitement when they found out that the tour would not only include a walk-through of the active construction site, but an aerial view by helicopter as well.
From aboard the helicopter, the students got a breathtaking view of the late afternoon sun glinting off the small area where the installation of solar panels had already begun. Teams of about a dozen workers were mounting self-rotating, three-foot-by-five-foot polychrystalline panels to their housings. The panels were wired up 10 to a row, 40 to a group, and repeated across the landscape. Although less than one-fourth of the panels were installed at the time of the students' visit, all of the panels were expected to be in place within three to four weeks. The entire site spans more than 400 acres of what was previously agricultural land. In all, the three separate installation sites will house 243,000 panels and produce 52 megawatts (MW) of power.
The first site will begin power generation later this year and the other two sites will be online by the end of next year, when AU will be able to enjoy power without a carbon footprint made possible by this landmark green energy deal.