Six Key Factors for a Successful Solar Project

The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) wanted to increase its energy independence.

CSCU consists of 12 community colleges, four state universities, and one online college, all of which serve a combined 85,000 students per year. To keep the quality of campus life and academic programs high while simultaneously controlling costs, CSCU looked to implement a solar energy solution.

Its goal was to offset 30% of its energy for nine of its community college campuses. With a combination of solar arrays on the ground, rooftops, and over parking lots and garages, the solar solution CSCU pursued has helped the organization achieve major progress towards its goals as they continue to develop further interest in onsite and offsite solar across their campuses. Traditional energy sources are offset by an estimated 30% annually and will generate $15 million in savings over 20 years.

Several colleges and universities are following a similar path as CSCU. They’re pursuing solar solutions for two major reasons: to save money on energy costs and/or to meet sustainability goals through renewable energy projects.

Whether you’re already pursuing a solar solution or just starting to consider your options, there are some important considerations to keep in mind, as well as certain factors that go into the most successful solar projects.

6 factors to consider before undertaking a solar project

The most successful projects all start by marrying your goals to what’s possible on your campus. Before you start, think through the following key elements:

1. Your goals

This is the most impactful question you can ask yourself. This answer will steer the conversation with a solar provider and determine how you approach the project.

If cost savings is your most important objective, that will take you down one path. However, if your goal is to be carbon neutral, and transition your energy use to 100% solar in the next five years, that will take you down a different path and will likely require a more involved strategy.

The more clear and specific your goals are, the better a solar provider will be able to fulfill them.

2. Space available on campus for the solar solution

When you deploy solar on your property, you’re essentially building a power plant on campus, and that requires a fair amount of space. Of course, for many colleges and universities, space is at a premium.

It’s important to think through the physical footprint of your property and the most viable locations for solar. Rooftops and the tops of parking garages or lots are usually a good bet, but some colleges are willing to give up a baseball field and convert it into a ground mount solar array.

Looking at your master plan over the next 10 to 15 years, what space on the property is most viable for solar arrays? 

3. How much power you currently consume

Are you using 1 million kilowatt hours (kWh) or 10 million kWh? How many utility meters do you have?

These answers will determine what kind of solution you need. If you only need 1 million kWh, you won’t need more than a 1 megawatt (MW) system. If you need more, the system you build will have to adjust accordingly, and in conjunction with the space you have available.

4. How much you currently pay for power

Consider the location of your college or university, as that has a big impact on your energy costs and the viability of a solar solution.

If you’re in the south, you might be paying four cents per kWh, which makes it tough for solar to compete. If you’re in the northeast, however, solar can make a more profound impact and allow you to cut costs, if that’s a primary goal. 

5. What it costs to have it all

In some cases, universities want it all. They want be sustainable, they want to realize cost savings, they want to maintain their current campus master plan, and they need it all to be within a tight budget.

The important thing to keep in mind is balance. Sometimes to really make a dent in your energy offsets, it will require a larger budget. Sometimes you might only save 10% on energy costs, but end up with an array right next to the main road on campus, to convey a commitment to sustainability to parents and students. Sometimes you get to keep your baseball field, and still save $60,000 a year.

This is why it’s important to set out your goals from the beginning — any solar project will be crafted around those particular goals.

6. How financing works

Capital dollars are scarce, and understandably most universities reserve them for other major projects. In addition, because many universities are public, they can’t directly monetize the tax benefits of a solar solution.

However, universities can make solar projects work by financing through their solar provider. In these cases, the provider designs and builds the solution, and the university signs a long-term contract to receive power to its utility meter. The provider takes on the burden of building, owning, and maintaining the arrays. The university doesn’t need to rely on capital expenditure, as they can simply pay for the power generated by the system by leveraging their operating budget, which often leads to overall energy cost savings in areas where the economics are favorable because there is a lower rate of electricity due to the tax benefits. Ultimately, it’s no different than a relationship with any other utility.

What makes a solar project successful?

Once all of the above is sorted out, your goals are established, and the project is ready to commence, the most successful projects have one element in common: over communication.

It starts with a solid construction plan that takes into account and aligns with the academic calendar to minimize disruptions.

Involve all the stakeholders: facilities leaders, operations leaders, and anyone with a hand in the day-to-day activity of the campus. They’ll all need to plan out how to accommodate the project, from moving classes to coordinating the power shut off that needs to happen to commission the new solar solution.

The shut off typically happens during quiet periods on campus, like spring break or over Thanksgiving weekend. During this period, generators can provide backup power during the commissioning. Overall, a good plan, agreed to by the utility, solar provider, and campus, is necessary to help to minimize the disruption.

Think too about when to do the commissioning. Many universities choose to have it done over spring break so a ribbon cutting ceremony with associated public relations can align with graduation ceremonies when family and friends will be on campus and can see the project come to fruition. Again, make sure any deadlines are clearly communicated.

Solar solutions can fulfill a number of needs for colleges and universities. By communicating early and often about where you stand now, what you’d like to achieve, and how, your campus can adopt the many benefits of solar power.