Universities in the Midwest are part of an emerging solar PV market. At the project outset in 2014, this region had only 3% of the nation’s installed solar capacity, but was experiencing the fastest growth rate of any region in the U.S. The Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) worked with partnering universities to spur solar development at universities throughout the country by creating solar PV investment proposals for consideration by university governance boards at each campus and sharing lessons learned nationally. The MREA team engaged local stakeholders and regional and national experts to define a solar project development roadmap for engaging university foundations in large-scale solar deployment (1 MW+) and investment in solar power procurement.
MREA engaged Student Deployment Teams at each campus to build student, faculty, and alumni support of solar PV deployment and investment. These teams completed site assessments through the MREA Site Assessment Certification Program to select potential solar deployment project sites on each campus. Using this information, the teams developed a solar investment proposal for each campus with recommendations for the adoption of campus solar deployment goals, the adoption of policies to guide investment in solar on and off campus, and the approval of competitive solicitation for solar installation contractors. The project and student teams sought to engage the university foundations in building a campaign targeted at alumni and donors to solicit support for solar deployment on each campus. MREA is further supporting the student teams in a concerted campus-wide effort to organize support for the student-led proposals to governance boards at partnering university campuses.
Illinois State University
Missouri University of Science and Technology
University of Minnesota
University of Richmond*
Virginia Commonwealth University*
Minnesota State University – Iron Range Engineering*
University of Vermont*
* denotes preliminary partnerships
Partnering university campus teams utilized MREA’s online PV certificate programs and internship offerings, including the MREA PV Site Assessment Certificate and the MREA PV Design and Sales Certificate, and encompassing courses to prepare for the roadmapping process and provide incentives for student participation.
In addition to the training offered to students on general PV knowledge and site assessments, MREA’s Campus PV Development course guided campus teams through the solar roadmapping process. The course covered each section of the roadmap and defined solar potential, stakeholder support, campus energy use, legal, and regulatory barriers and opportunities, potential financing structures, and project financial returns for campus PV investments. Through participation in this course, teams completed “customer ready” site assessments for priority sites by applying the templates, resources, guidelines, rubrics, and technical assistance. Four partnering campuses created working roadmaps and used site assessments in the development of a solar investment proposal for their campus, which included recommendations for:
MREA is now transforming this course into a more general PV Project Development course for tax-exempt and taxable entities to learn how to pursue large-scale solar.
To advance the professional development of faculty and students, stimulate knowledge transfer, and build capacity and coordination among project stakeholders, MREA facilitated a schedule of industry conferences, planning sessions, site visits, tours, and fact-finding missions. These initiatives, available to participating faculty, graduate students, and project stakeholders, helped the teams identify opportunities, share experiences, and implement strategies for their campuses.
Key highlights include:
MREA, together with its partners, set out to develop solar investment proposals and campaigns for engaging alumni and donors in renewable energy investment and engage with university governance boards. As a first step, the MREA team created a case study series highlighting higher education investment in solar energy projects to showcase working financial models for universities and other higher education institutions to invest in solar energy on campus.
MREA also partnered with the Intentional Endowments Network (IEN) to support higher education institutions and other mission-driven organizations in aligning their endowment investment practices with their mission, values, and sustainability goals, IEN hosts forums and releases documents focused on sustainable investment practices. Recent publications include:
These efforts will culminate in the completion of the University Roadmap for Solar Investment for national dissemination. MREA will summarize the research, experiences, strategies, and lessons learned through the solar deployment efforts at each partnering campus to create resources available for use by universities and colleges across the U.S.
MREA has learned that higher education institutions are primed for the next wave of large-scale solar in the U.S. The success of their student-based projects proved that students are a driving force on campus. By using their status to gain access to internal stakeholders, students have the ability to develop projects that fit the institution’s direct needs. They also have the ability to mobilize many different groups on campus, creating the momentum to push large-scale solar projects forward. Institutional champions are equally important when determining project success. The role of the internal champion—whether staff, faculty, alumni, or another internal stakeholder—is to guide student teams, translate their research and momentum into an attractive option for the institution, and work with internal stakeholders to get the project approved.
Internal champions are also important when considering how local politics or internal drivers may affect a potential project. This person is tasked with gaining access to the information that can determine a project’s success. For example, if an institution’s finance department has the broader goal of decreasing tuition, it is less likely that a large-scale solar PV project will be successful. Similarly, on- and off-campus relationships have the ability to decrease or increase the likelihood of success.
The presence of supportive policy is another determinant of institutional success. In the absence of enabling policy (e.g., absent net metering regulations or ambiguous legal status of power purchase agreements ), large-scale solar PV investments are higher risk and offer less potential payoff, often tipping the scale away from wide-spread campus support. Conversely, clear and supportive policies decrease investment risk by limiting unknown variables and may offer financing mechanisms more favorable to institutions.