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The Renewable Energy All-Americans: Colleges Leading the Transition to 100% Renewable Energy on Campus

When I was a student at the University of Maine, I worked at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center helping to test wind turbine blade models. In that facility students and staff were developing the first grid-connected offshore wind turbine in the Americas. Other colleges and universities around the country have helped develop many of the other technologies we need to transition to a 100 percent renewable energy system – from solar panels to heat pumps to electric buses. As students, professors and citizens call for action on climate change, colleges across the country are now stepping up and using the technologies developed under their roofs to power their own campuses.

This spring, Frontier Group and Environment America Research & Policy Center ranked the nation’s campuses leading the charge toward clean energy in our report America's Top Colleges for Renewable Energy: Who's Leading the Transition to 100% Renewable Energy on Campus? The report finds that large public research universities, small liberal arts colleges and community colleges alike, from every corner of the country, are turning to renewable energy to reduce their emissions, attract students, provide training and research opportuni­ties, and reduce costs.

More than 40 colleges and universities now obtain 100 percent or more of their electricity from renewable energy sources. And, of the 180 schools that have reported their renewable energy data to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), 91 percent are using some amount of renewable energy. Each of the top 10 schools in the report’s ranking for electric campus-owned vehicles have switched over 60 percent of their campus vehicles to EVs.

College campuses are ideal places to lead the renewable energy transition. Colleges are large energy users, and are uniquely suited to employ microgrids and district heating and cooling systems that expand the potential uses for renewable energy. Schools that seize these opportunities can draw the attention of potential students. A 2019 Princeton Review survey of nearly 12,000 college applicants found that 64 percent would factor in schools’ environmental commitments – including commitments to adopt renewable energy – when deciding where to attend.

The number one schools in the report’s five top-10 rankings are:

  1. Total renewable electricity use: Southwestern University in Texas purchases Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) from wind farms equivalent to 100 percent of its electricity consumption.
  2. On-campus renewable electricity: The University of Minnesota, Morris produces about 60 percent of its electricity needs on campus with two commercial-scale wind turbines, and also powers one of its residence halls with a 20-kW solar PV installation.
  3. Off-campus renewable electricity: George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with American University and the George Washington University Hospital, purchases electricity from large, off-campus solar arrays to cover 53 percent of its electricity consumption.
  4. Renewable heating, cooling, hot water and other non-electric energy needs: Colgate University in New York has multiple renewable energy systems on its campus, including solar thermal panels that heat water used on campus and a geothermal system that draws from the earth’s stable temperature to provide heating in the winter and cooling in the summer.
  5. Electric campus-owned vehicles: Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida, operates 41 campus-owned vehicles, 35 of which are powered entirely by electricity.

In addition to the schools in the report’s rankings, numerous schools have adopted ambitious renewable energy commitments for the future, including:

Harvard University is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050. To achieve these goals, the campus has been dramatically reducing its energy consumption through efficiency upgrades and initiatives to encourage energy conservation habits. Thanks to these efforts, Harvard cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent between 2006 and 2016, even as its campus grew.

The University of Hawai’i (UH) is committed to produce as much renewable energy as its campuses use by 2035. In 2019, UH Maui College is anticipated to become the first UH campus to generate 100 percent of its energy from on-campus renewable energy sources once its solar PV plus battery storage system is brought online.

The University of California system (UC) is committed to be carbon neutral – in both its buildings and campus fleets – by 2025. One of the most impressive parts of UC’s commitment is its plan to convert its buildings to be “all-electric” for heating, cooling and other needs that are currently supplied by gas.

See the report for the full rankings as well as tips and case studies on transitioning campuses to 100 percent renewable energy.

Institutions of higher learning have always been places where society explores its future. Colleges and universities have been researching and improving renewable energy technologies for decades. It’s time for those same institu­tions to put the technologies fostered under their roofs to use – and commit to powering their campuses with 100 percent clean, renewable energy.