Renewable Energy 100

America’s institutions of higher education can play a crucial role in the fight to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. Colleges and universities across the country should aggressively deploy clean energy on campus, setting a goal of getting 100 percent of their energy from clean renewable sources.

Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Note: Newer editions of this report are available:

America’s institutions of higher education can play a crucial role in the fight to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. Colleges and universities across the country should aggressively deploy clean energy on campus, setting a goal of getting 100 percent of their energy from clean renewable sources.

Hundreds of universities have already pledged to achieve carbon neutrality with many signing onto Second Nature’s Climate Leadership Commitment. Universities that eliminate the use of fossil fuels can help to achieve the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims to keep global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

America can get 100 percent of its energy from clean, renewable sources:

  • America’s renewable energy resources have the potential to provide vastly more energy than the nation currently uses. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the United States can generate more than 100 times as much electricity from wind and solar power installations as the nation currently consumes each year. These resources can also supply more than enough energy to meet future electricity demand created by the adoption of electric vehicles and other clean energy technologies.
  • Studies conducted by multiple academic and governmental institutions have determined America can use clean energy to affordably and reliably provide all of the nation’s energy needs, largely using technologies that already exist including wind power, solar power, energy efficiency and energy storage.

College and university campuses are ideal places to lead the drive toward 100 percent renewable energy:

  • America’s institutions of higher education are major energy users. They serve 20 million students, representing more than 6 percent of the national population. The higher education sector spends roughly $14 billion on energy costs each year, and the education sector as a whole, including K-12 schools, consumed 10 percent of all energy used by the commercial sector in 2012.
  • College and university campuses often have physical attributes that make them good locations for hosting clean energy projects. Many have space on rooftops, in parking lots and on marginal land for hosting solar panels, wind turbines and other clean energy technologies.
  • Colleges can save money and hedge against volatile fossil fuel costs by investing in clean energy. By entering power purchase agreements (PPAs), colleges can purchase clean energy and drive the deployment of new installations without upfront costs.
  • Colleges’ roles as leaders of innovation and training make them ideally suited to lead the way toward a clean energy future. They can apply newly developed technologies on campus, and use clean energy installations as opportunities for teaching and research.
  • Adopting clean energy appeals to prospective students and meets the desires of current students and faculty. The Princeton Review and other college guides for prospective students highlight schools that have made a commitment to sustainability.

Many college campuses are already transitioning to clean energy.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership Program lists 45 higher education institutions that get 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources.
  • The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) lists 587 solar energy installations at 330 campuses in 41 states.
  • A 2011 report by the National Wildlife Federation contains examples of 160 campuses in 42 states that use geothermal energy for heating and cooling. 

A diverse array of universities have taken ambitious and creative steps toward clean energy.

  • In 2011, after completing the installation of 25,000 solar panels, Butte College in northern California became the nation’s first college campus to become “grid positive,” meaning that the college generates more electricity than it uses.
  • The University of Delaware is home to a 256-foot tall wind turbine that provides more than enough electricity to power the school’s entire Lewes campus, along with more than 100 nearby homes. The turbine creates research and educational opportunities, and university students have used the wind turbine to study everything from impacts on birds and bats to the corrosive impacts of salty coastal air.
  • Georgetown University purchases renewable energy certificates (RECs) exceeding 100 percent of its electricity use, making it one of the leading clean energy campuses in the country. In addition to its REC procurement, Georgetown has reduced energy use through extensive energy efficiency efforts, and recently installed solar panels on campus through a collaboration between students, faculty and staff.
  • At Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, the school’s energy efficiency projects through the Department of Energy’s “Better Buildings Challenge” have reduced building energy use by 14 percent across campus. Students have played a leading role in the efficiency projects, including proposing and creating the financial case for a geothermal system at a new residence hall on campus.
  • Ball State in Indiana replaced its aging coal-fired boilers, which emitted 85,000 tons of carbon dioxide pollution per year, with an emission-free geothermal heating system. The project saves the school an estimated $2 million in operating costs each year, while the first two phases of the project created 2,300 direct and indirect jobs.
  • While creating a Climate Action Plan for achieving carbon neutrality, the University of Louisville discovered that 18 percent of campus emissions were the result of commuting, since so many students and faculty commute to school by driving alone. The school made bicycling a centerpiece of its plan to reduce transportation emissions, creating a program to give students $400 vouchers for local bike shops in exchange for giving up their campus parking spot, while also building bike-friendly improvements across campus including bike lanes and bike racks.
  • A number of schools across the country have created initiatives to promote energy conservation. For example, the State University of New York at Albany runs an annual 10-week long competition among residence halls to reduce energy use, and Cornell University’s “Think Big, Live Green” energy conservation initiative has a goal of reducing campus electricity use by 1 percent every year.

Colleges and universities have long played a leading role in bringing technological changes to society.  Colleges and universities across the country should commit to getting 100 percent of their energy – including for transportation and heating – from clean, renewable sources. They should do so on ambitious timelines, while sharing data and lessons from their experience, working with surrounding communities, and engaging their students in the process.

 Download factsheet


Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group