Capital Partners Leading the Way for Cheaper, Cleaner Energy

Letter from President Knapp, leaders of American University and George Washington University Hospital outlines how the agreement to bring solar energy to their institutions could be replicated.

October 9, 2014

Last week, about 300 higher education sustainability leaders from around the country came together in Boston for the Presidential Summit on Climate Leadership.  Our message to them was simple: urban
institutions can be models of sustainability.

We have each committed to aggressive reductions in our carbon footprints. As we looked for ways to reach our targets, a challenge we all faced was that much of our energy was obtained from non-renewable sources. We began to look for alternatives, but in an urban environment, we simply did not have the space to install the number of solar panels or wind turbines required to meet our emissions goals.

To accomplish our objectives, we formed an innovative partnership we hope will serve as a model for other large institutions looking to reduce carbon emissions and control costs. During the next 20 years, George Washington University, American University and the George Washington University Hospital (a private hospital owned by Universal Health Services, Inc.) will source enough zero-emission solar power to cover more than half of each university’s electricity usage and about one-third of the hospital’s energy needs.  We have also locked in our energy costs for the next two decades at a price lower than what we are currently paying, saving money immediately and insulating our
institutions from likely increases in energy prices over that same period.

The power will be generated in North Carolina—in the largest solar operation east of the Mississippi, comprising three separate arrays—and routed through the state’s electrical grid into the District of Columbia regional grid, increasing the amount of solar energy used in our Nation’s Capital. Our purchase proves large-scale renewable energy can be successfully brought into an urban environment that lacks the capacity to generate a sufficient supply of clean energy within its boundaries.

Other colleges, universities and municipalities are showing interest in the model. With more than 4,500 colleges and universities across the nation, the opportunities for more—and even larger—partnerships are easy to see. It is no secret that colleges and universities often compete with each other in the recruitment of students and faculty, as well as on the athletic field, but what we learned through the Capital Partners Solar Project is that when we collaborate, we can have a tremendous impact on the communities of which we are a part. As three separate entities, none of us would have had the ability to accomplish alone what we have done together.

These opportunities also exist outside the academic or medical communities, or even outside of large corporate entities. The faculty, staff and students of our three institutions total more than 50,000 people, the equivalent of a town the size of Revere, Mass. And while the 123 million kilowatt-hours of solar power generated every year as part of this partnership will meet more than half of our total electric needs, the equivalent amount of energy could meet the annual electric needs of 8,200 homes. Our prevention of 60,000 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere is the equivalent of removing 12,500 cars from the road—or preserving 50,000 acres of U.S. forests—each year. Consider the impact of two or more communities joining together to set up similar partnerships.

There has been another benefit to what we are doing. By pooling our demand, the Capital Partners Solar Project has incentivized development of 52 megawatts (MW) of new solar capacity. Although only one of the three solar farms that will provide our power was even in the works when we formed our partnership, we signaled that there is a new market of retail buyers interested in large-scale renewable energy. Rather than wait for the solar capacity to catch up to our needs, we demanded increased capacity at the right price and, in turn, laid groundwork for other institutions to follow.

We are proud of what we accomplished in Washington, but even more so of the groundwork it lays for other institutions—and other communities—to innovate in the future. We have proven that large institutions can come together to bring renewable energy into urban areas. We hope other universities, other institutions and other communities will join us in coming together to tackle our collective challenges with solutions greater than those we could achieve on our own.

Steven Knapp
President, The George Washington University

Cornelius M. Kerwin
President, American University

Barry A. Wolfman
CEO/Managing Director, The George Washington
University Hospital