Solar energy vital to Oregon State’s strategic direction

I have sitting on my desk right now (amongst too many other things) a printed copy of a research paper titled:  “When you can’t build your way out of the problem: Evaluating greenhouse gas reduction strategies for suburban activity centers”

Brandon Trelstad

Brandon Trelstad

It’s a reminder to me that the toolkit for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as Oregon State has agreed to do, will be a wide ranging, diverse set of strategies and actions. Awareness, education and changing human expectations will be a big part of moving forward, but certain technology and equipment will also play a big role.  Debate rages on within the green and scientific communities about “transition” energy sources, which, depending on who you talk to, include things like ethanol and traditional nuclear power.  Solar energy, in spite of its perceived costs, is one of the long term solutions and one that can be implemented now.

A colleague of mine at the Oregon Department of Energy, Christopher Dymond (son of the late OSU oceanography researcher Jack Dymond), has coined a now locally popular phrase amongst solar geeks like me: “You must eat your conservation vegetables before you can have your solar cookies.”

The simple statement illustrates how the energy density of the solar electric technologies today cannot support our existing inefficient infrastructure. In my own home, I followed Christopher’s advice to the best of my abilities with compact fluorescent lights, an extremely efficient – but effective – showerhead provided free from the Energy Trust of Oregon, better windows and insulation, etc.  Then I invested in solar, and now get about 65% of my energy on an annual basis from the sun.

On campus, we are attempting the same efforts, but not following as strictly Christopher’s advice. Unlike my personal bank account, funding for conservation projects and solar installations on campus come from different “pots of money,” a phrase I have grown very familiar with in my time at OSU. We are attempting multiple strategies at once, some moving quicker and with more success than others.

About a year ago, OSU and the Chancellor’s Office began investigating options for third party ownership of solar electric systems. In these arrangements, a tax-paying investor pays for and owns a solar electric system, installs it on OSU’s buildings and the university purchases the power for a given period of time, after which OSU would buy for a nominal amount or be given the rooftop equipment. The investor depreciates the equipment and takes the tax credits and other financial incentives that make the systems nearly cost-neutral.  OSU gets renewable power and eventually takes ownership of the systems. Roof mounted photovoltaic systems could, at Hinsdale Wave Research Lab for example, provide over half the building’s annual electrical needs, depending on the building.
Current economic conditions have reduced investor tax liability, making these arrangements more difficult and delayed.  But there is still hope for systems in the next year or so, and I’m working with OUS on figuring out Plan C. It’s slow going, but too promising a deal to pass up.

However, I’m also excited about solar thermal. Recreational Sports has hired a consultant to begin planning a solar hot water system for Dixon Rec that will heat the pools, and perhaps even some domestic hot water. Much of the construction costs will be covered by reinvestment funds from Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the supplier of green tags for the student renewable energy fee that students passed in 2007. We hope to construct the system late spring or summer.

OSU has a number of research projects that include solar energy as part of their emphasis. They include transparent transistors and optoelectronics created by researchers at OSU and HP, a new Center for Green Materials Chemistry that will be operated jointly with University of Oregon, a student-built solar trailer that can supply temporary power to outdoor concerts, generate electricity for remote rescue operations, or operate pumps at environmental clean-up sites, and Roger Ely and Frank Chaplen’s work to harnessing photosynthetic microbes that use solar energy to split water molecules and make hydrogen.

OSU emitted about 150,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent climate changing gasses in Fiscal Year 2007. This is a huge number, but it is in line with our peers, and many universities nationwide are making similar efforts.
The Environmental Protection Agency says Corvallis buys more renewable energy than any other city in the nation, and Oregon State University is the largest single purchaser of green power in Corvallis, buying enough to meet about 75 percent of its needs. OSU students have committed a significant amount of student fee money toward purchasing renewable energy for OSU, which has reduced emissions to less than 110,000 metric tonnes CO2e for FY08. Faculty and staff can join the students’ leadership by contributing: Employees can also participate in the climate action planning process that kicks off with an open forum on Feb.10, 2:00-3:30 in MU 208.

Brandon Trelstad is the sustainability coordinator for Oregon State University.

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