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In addition to institutional efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through energy conservation, Washington University in St. Louis is committed to pursuing renewable energy projects to demonstrate and test new technologies, as well as projects at larger scales when financially feasible.

2014 Solar Photovoltaic Project

A photovoltaic array lines the roof of a building on WashU Campus.

In 2014 and 2015, Washington University added 547 kilowatts (kw) of solar photovoltaics to university-owned property throughout the region. The solar arrays increased WashU’s solar generating capacity from 33 kw to 580 kw. The new arrays represent Washington University’s first major investment in renewable energy. The solar arrays will produce an estimated 740,000 kilowatt hours each year, enough emission-free energy to power the electrical usage of 70 average U.S. homes. In addition, the arrays will save the University an estimated $100,000 over 10 years.

Based on the carbon intensity of grid electricity in Missouri, which is among the highest in the US, the solar arrays will reduce the university’s emissions by 607 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This is equal to the amount of carbon sequestered by 498 acres of U.S. Forest per year.

Most of the solar arrays have been installed on flat roofs, including Hillman Hall (50 kw), the Lofts of Washington University (75 kw), the School of Medicine (100kw), North Campus (75 kw), West Campus (75 kw), the Family Learning Center (25 kw), the 560 Music Building (25 kw) and the University City Children’s Center (50 kw).

In addition to the roof-top arrays, Tyson Research Center has a 50 kw ground-mounted array adjacent to the headquarters building, and a 4 kw solar carport is installed over an electric vehicle (EV) charging station in front of Brauer Hall on the Danforth Campus. The solar carport is projected to generate the majority of electricity usage at the EV charger. The carport project, spearheaded by Dr. Pratim Biswas, is being used for teaching and research in the Department of Energy, Environmental and Chemical Engineering, which Dr. Biswas Chairs.

Two WashU seniors, Rachel Goldstein and Tyler Loucky, were instrumental in helping to identify off-campus sites that would be feasible for photovoltaic rooftop systems. Read the official release in the Record to learn about Rachel and Tyler’s role in the project.

Many talented individuals at the university contributed their time and expertise to make the project a reality, including the treasurer’s office, the General Counsel’s office, resource management, facilities teams at the Danforth and School of Medicine campuses, financial planning, real estate, insurance and risk management, and Tyson Research Center.

Additional Washington University Renewable Energy

The new arrays greatly expand upon previous solar installations, which include a 1 kw array on Olin Library, an 8.6 kw array on Brauer Hall and a 23 kw array at Tyson Research Center’s Living Learning Center, one of the the first buildings in the world to achieve Living Building Challenge Certification. Solar thermal arrays were installed on the Lofts of Washington University buildings in summer 2014, heating 25% of the domestic hot water demand from the sun’s energy. WashU also captures spent fryer oil that is converted to biodiesel by Kelley Green Biofuel and then used to power three Dining Services delivery trucks.

Solar Project FAQs

Where will the energy be used?
Washington University will directly use the solar-generated electricity at each installation site, reducing the amount of energy each building will draw from the grid.

What percent of the university’s energy use will the panels supply?
The solar arrays generate an average of 15% of the energy use in the buildings where they are located. The percentage varies from 1% to 58% depending on the size and energy intensity of each building. Overall, the arrays provide less than 1% of Washington University’s total electricity use, if you include the usage of all campuses. Keep in mind, the new arrays will be located on a fraction of available roof space on an even smaller fraction of potential sites.

How much of the university’s energy use could be generated by on-site solar panels?
With current solar technology, the maximum on-site solar energy production for a densely located major teaching, research and patient care institution, like Washington University, may be less than 10%, assuming the current level of energy use. In addition to adding more solar panels, the percentage of energy provided by solar can increase through reducing overall energy use through energy conservation projects. Washington University has a long track record and aggressive plan for reducing energy consumption through projects such as lighting retrofits, replacing old boilers and chillers with state-of-the art equipment, optimizing operations and engaging our community members to adopt energy conserving behaviors. Energy is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Grid electricity in Missouri and throughout the US is created through a mixture of sources, including coal combustion, natural gas combustion, nuclear, wind, hydroelectric and solar. Increases in both customer-owned and utility-owned renewable energy systems will result in decreased emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

How were the sites selected?
A series of factors were evaluated during the site selection process including roof size, roof age, shading and building energy usage. One of the required factors was the presence of a dedicated utility account. A key piece of the project financing, the solar rebate administered by the electrical utility Ameren Missouri, was tied to each utility account and limited to $50,000 per account regardless of whether the account serves a single home, a small business or a campus. The Danforth Campus, consisting of over 60 major buildings, is serviced by a single Ameren account, significantly limiting the opportunity for inclusion of Danforth sites. Similar limitations applied at the School of Medicine.

Why are the projects in increments of 25 kilowatts?
Each account within Ameren Missouri’s territory was eligible to receive $2/watt of installed solar, up to a total of 25,000 watts or $50,000 of rebate per account. As a result, many Ameren customers, including Washington University, developed 25 kw projects, where possible, to access the available funding. A few WashU project sites, including North Campus, had multiple utility accounts, resulting in 50 kw or 75 kw arrays.

What partners were involved in the projects?
The solar projects were developed in partnership with Microgrid Solar and U.S. Bank (454 kw), Brightergy (75 kw), and StraightUp Solar (18 kw). Solar rebates from Ameren Missouri were an important component of the project financing. Installation was performed by electrical contractors Aschinger Electric, Kaemmerlen Electric, AVCO Electrical Services and Schaeffer Electric.

How were the projects structured?
Most of the solar projects were developed as solar leases. The companies own, install and maintain the arrays for the duration of the lease, with minimal up-front cost to the university. The lease structure is a common financing tool that non-profit organizations use to access federal renewable energy tax credits. Throughout Missouri, many K-12 school districts and other non-profit organizations have used this structure to finance solar projects.