Energizing the Higher Ed Sustainability Movement -- with Renewables
I recently attended the fourth annual Renewable Energy Technology (RETECH) conference in Washington, D.C., from September 19-20, hosted by the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE).
A non-profit with a vast array of contacts in the utilities, finance, and policy sectors of the industry, ACORE is producing notable research, including the US-China Quarterly Market Review and the Renewable Energy in America interactive report,
So where does higher education sustainability fit into all this?
It seems intuitive to consider renewables as part of the equation for lowering the climate impact of a college or university, but there are challenges (e.g. financing, leadership approval) with which higher education institutions continue to grapple. This workshop helped to bring to light the ongoing challenges, but also the opportunities and benefits of renewable energy in higher education institutions.
ACORE has had a Higher Education Committee for a few years now, but this year marks the first time ACORE has held a Higher Education Workshop during the RETECH conference. Though the focus was on renewable energy, the workshop allowed for discussion across a range of topics–from curriculum development to campus research to strategies to achieve carbon neutrality.
With a group of about 20 participants, the workshop ran for four hours, and included three different sessions:
- Integrating Renewable Energy into Curricula
- The Role of Research: Opportunities and Respective Roles
- Achieving Zero Carbon Campuses by 2050.
In the third session I presented on AASHE’s initiatives to promote campus climate neutrality and renewable energy, alongside Blain Collison of the EPA’s Green Power Partnership Program, as well as engineer Doug Maust who worked on the construction of the University of Minnesota’s wind turbine.
Three, key themes that came out of the workshop discussions and the following day’s full member meeting were:
1) Renewable energy plays an essential role in the growing movement towards sustainability and climate neutrality in higher education.
2) Partnerships between campuses and higher education associations as well as other sustainability organizations can further understanding of how renewable energy can play a role at higher education institutions.
3) Renewable energy initiatives on campus can pose valuable benefits beyond lowering the ecological footprint of the campus.
As an example of the last, Angela Halfacre, professor and Director of the Shi Center for Sustainability at Furman University, discussed the ways in which renewable energy initiatives were integrated into Furman’s curriculum. One of the eight solar arrays on this small liberal arts campus in North Carolina was installed completely by students. Dr. Halfacre also led a course for twelve students, “Conservation and Renewable Energy May Experience,” structured to challenge students to conduct research and present their findings in a month-long capstone format.
As hubs of innovation and research, higher education institutions have students, faculty, and staff with the ability to test, teach, and talk about renewable energy technologies. The sharing of knowledge, challenges, successes, is intrinsically built into the culture of research and education. This highlights the unique opportunity that higher education institutions have to develop and advance renewable energy technologies, with ripple effects that can far surpass the boundaries of a campus and direct reduction in resource consumption.
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