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Should Education Institutes Invest More in Renewable Energy?

Any college you attend, no matter where it is in the world, has to attend to its energy costs. For the individual homeowner, you know that this is a massive portion of your monthly bills. But for universities, it’s even more substantial. Entire computer labs are open 24 hours a day, water heaters power locker rooms instead of one or two showers, and of course, some kids just forget to conserve energy, leaving lights on and windows open when they don’t need to be.

Solar pannels and mounting structure at rooftop

Universities, in general, tend to be starting points for change. People who are most interested in higher education also tend to be passionate about the “big picture” and are hungry for new technology. The passion of young people combined with the expertise of the most experienced people in their fields means that breakthroughs can be made in areas where others might fail.

Those factors, the increased energy costs, environmental initiatives, drive, and expertise all combine to make colleges breeding grounds for change. In India, colleges have been taking steps towards sustainability for years, following in the footsteps of other colleges around the world.  While these first few schools are taking steps into new territory, they are not the only ones trying it out. Other schools and businesses have seen the benefits of switching over. Those that are acting now are merely the first of many that should make this part of their future goals.

Fossil Fuels are Not Sustainable

No matter how much people may want to stick with what they know, the simple fact is that fossil fuels will run out. Even if we ignore the environmental impact they have, they just won’t be around forever. Some experts expect fossil fuels to run out in slightly over a century. In that case, we need to go ahead and start switching over to an energy source that we can depend on for a much longer time span.

Of course, for most people, ignoring the problems that fossil fuels cause is a fool’s idea. Even if we don’t run out of coal for another 100 years, the damage we can do in the interim is extensive. We have already begun altering our planet’s atmosphere at a rate that most plants and animals can’t cope with. The ice caps are melting, species are going extinct, natural resources are running low and people all over the globe are experiencing severe weather.

Last year, the U.S. saw record-breaking hurricanes, while the monsoon season in India claimed 1,200 lives. These storms cannot be attributed to climate change on an individual basis but taken as a global whole, we can see that as our climate changes, so does our weather. The increase in storm severity is not only surprising scientists. It costs lives around the world. This is the ultimate result of what extensive fossil fuel use has done.

Renewable Energy is a Good Deal

While fossil fuels have plenty of drawbacks on their own, the most immediate result that drives people and institutions to change is simple – money.  Renewable energy sources may be expensive to install, but the cost savings are also substantial. And for a university, where energy costs are such a significant part of the budget, those savings are even more significant.

In the U.S., energy costs vary, but on average, colleges spend about $1.10 per square foot. A single library on campus might be around 200,000 sq. ft. which would make electricity for that single building $220,000, or approximately 14.3 million rupees, each year. In India, solar had been more expensive than coal for a long while, but that has recently changed. Now, companies are offering prices competitive with coal, at around 2.44 rupees/kWh. As more contracts are picked up, prices fall, and the carrying capacity increases, solar prices will continue dropping. Coal, however, will continue to rise.

Installing solar panels or wind turbines, on the other hand, might allow the university to drastically reduce their energy expenditures for the rest of the time they function. And the cost of those initial installations is falling as well. Supply and demand helps the market stabilize, and as the economies of scale being to kick in, prices start dropping. Since 2011, solar prices have dropped 67 percent and 29 percent from 2015 to 2016. As more and more individuals and businesses pick up their use of solar, those prices will continue to fall.

Unfortunately, other aspects may work against the budding industry. Governmental policies that are unfavorable to renewable energy production may hinder it and slow new businesses abilities to provide services. The U.S., again, is an excellent example of this. President Donald Trump’s take on imports has made it difficult for companies to import steel for renewable energy, which has placed pressure on the industry.

However, if given an even playing field and when you take into account the energy savings for future years, almost any system will pay for its self. The savings have the potential to be so much higher that most universities are more than willing to pay the initial costs.

Demand from the Bottom

Offering renewable energy doesn’t just lower a university’s bills. It also attracts students and can help appease demand from shareholders. Many of the shareholders from a university have those stocks partially because they believe in what the school is trying to achieve, though this is aspect is more applicable to privately funded schools.

Schools that depend on government funding or are government run, however, will still bow at least some to demands from students. The goal is always to get the best of the best, and to provide the best to those who deserve it. Offering renewable energy not just for classes, but as an option to see it work at the school, is one way to do that. It lets the school put their money where their mouth is, so to speak.

In India, several government-run colleges have already been chosen to install solar power. These colleges will then get the benefit of having an uninterrupted power supply on-site, without having to worry about fluctuating oil prices or the impact of oil on the environment.

Even so, it’s not just students who are demanding environmentally-friendly schools. The teachers are as well. These people are usually experts in their fields, and all the science demands that we pay attention to climate change and take immediate action. Just like with students, schools that can demonstrate the ways they are trying to do that will attract attention from prospective faculty.

Supporting Industry and Research

There is no question that people will continue to need energy in some form. Since fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource, the only option is to change the way we get our energy. However, those changes cannot happen when renewable sources are either unknown or prohibitively expensive for individuals. There has to be a combination of research done on the cheapest production, and economies of scale to make it a legitimate option.

We have seen a great deal of this already. Wind, solar, biogas and even geothermal have been studied all over the world. Many are still very expensive, with geothermal facing various roadblocks including cost and already existing infrastructure.

Solar and wind, however, can benefit from additional studies. Some new inventions are being considered, like how to make transparent solar-panels. This would allow you to look through them like glass, removing the idea of only having solar panels on the roof. Instead, entire skyscrapers could be covered in them, generating power for not only their own building but also to return to the energy grid!

Demanding Social Change

Renewable energy isn’t just about lowering costs and saving the environment, although those are the two most common reasons for it. Renewables can also be a catalyst for social change. A cheaper energy option that isn’t controlled by a global monopoly means more people of all income levels have access to it. Right now, India is struggling to meet energy demands in areas that are quickly expanding, a common problem in developing nations.

By helping people gain access to renewable energy, the entire nation pushes forward. As the most poverty-stricken gain quality of life classes further up the line gain along with them. This kind of change helps everyone. Colleges and other areas of higher learning are often the starting place for people to understand this idea, which is that the things which benefit those beneath you also help you. They are also hubs for innovation and change, and renewable technology is one of the most worthy and necessary causes to push for.

So, should education institutes invest in renewable energy? The straightforward answer is yes, of course, they should. Those schools that can’t currently afford to do so may benefit from waiting for a while as the prices continue to fall. However, at some point, all the schools will have to make the change. Making the changes you can afford to make now will allow schools to lead the way when the call for bigger and better actions comes later. They’ll already be set up to lead the charge, instead of having to go through the training for saving our world.



Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter, @emilysfolk!


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