Nittany Solar Fields

Gabriel Schaefer has been interested in renewable energy for years — but a trip to Iceland made his fascination grow even more.

While overseas, Schaefer (senior-energy engineering) — who is a member of Penn State’s Student Sustainability Advisory Council — said he saw the impacts of increased carbon emissions by witnessing the intervals of glacier recedings. Ultimately, he said the trip “shifted his global perspective.”

Schaefer said he knew about climate change and its impacts before traveling to Iceland, but seeing it “in real life” put him in his place.

Peter Buck is an academic programs manager at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute and chair of an intergovernmental solar purchasing agreement working group in Centre County. He said climate change is a pertinent problem in society that needs to be combated with cleaner energy options.

“Human beings burning fossil fuels at the rate that we have over the last 200 years has wrapped the Earth in a thicker blanket of greenhouse gases that heats up the Earth and makes the atmosphere and ocean system more volatile and violent,” Buck said. “Adopting renewable energy draws down carbon emissions, keeps them out of the atmosphere, and makes it possible for us to have a safer and more stable climate.”

According to Buck, the world’s seen increased environmental devastation as a result of increased emission gas rates.

Ranging from the “super-typhoons and the 2017 hurricane season, which was one of the most expensive disaster seasons in history,” to the “record breaking wildfires in California, Alaska and Australia,” Buck said environmental devastation has been more aggressive and dangerous as carbon dioxide emission rates continue rising.

“Ticks were once checked by cold snaps and extended cold periods in Pennsylvania, but that’s no longer true,” Buck said. “So, what we see are increased examples of Lyme disease — such that the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in Pennsylvania now reports that one of the biggest worker’s compensation claims is from Lyme Disease because there are so many more ticks.”

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Due to these devastating environmental incidents, Buck said many organizations are switching to cleaner energy, and he said these renewable energy sources will likely threaten fossil fuels.

Buck said a 2019 study demonstrated that a “significant portion of coal-fired power plants are directly threatened by renewable energy development in the United States, such that by 2025, many coal-fired power plants – a majority of power plants – may be economically unviable.”

Nick Jones, executive vice president and provost at the university, said “Penn State leads by example and shows [its] students — who are tomorrow’s leaders — the importance of promoting sustainability and being advocates for change for the public good.”

According to Jones, the “commitment” by the university to “holistic institutional sustainability” is similar to the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, reflecting “globally shared values.”

“Penn State’s strategic plan through 2025 cites stewardship of our planet’s resources as one of five priorities and ensuring a sustainable future is a key foundation in the plan,” Jones said via email.

Jones said the strategic plan is set to implement the “Energy 2100” initiative, which focuses on the “development of carbon-neutral technologies and their integration into energy infrastructure.”

Buck said members of Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant set a 2050 carbon emissions goal to reduce greenhouse emission rates at Penn State by 80%, and one of the ways to meet this goal is to switch to renewable energy sources.

According to the Penn State’s Sustainability Institute’s website, Penn State partnered with Lightsource bp in 2019 and signed a 25-year Solar Power Purchase Agreement.

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Mary Grikas, head of communications for Lightsource bp, said the company built and funded the solar field project in Franklin County — near Penn State Mont Alto — with investors. She said Penn State then signed a power contract guaranteeing it will purchase all the power from the solar projects for 25 years.

Through the 70 MW solar project, 25% of Penn State’s commonwealth electricity requirements are met, and Penn State will save $14 million over the life of the project, Grikas said.

Additionally, Penn State’s greenhouse gas emission rates lowered by 57,000 mtCO2e per year through the solar project, Grikas said.

“[Penn State] wanted a partner who would be long-term and do things like make the solar projects available for research and make it a living laboratory, bringing in Penn State students for internships,” Grikas said.

Besides improving the energy sources powering Penn State, the university also wanted to improve “regional economic development,” Buck said.

According to Buck, Penn State “jumped really far” in sustainability and energy development after signing the partnership with Lightsource bp, and he said it “quickly became a university leader in the United States.”

Many students said they believe the solar agreement is a beneficial program for the university — including Schaefer.

“Penn State is a big institution and it’s comparable to a lot of big corporations that obviously contribute a lot to greenhouse emissions,” Schaefer said. “So, with Penn State making the switch to better energies from fossil fuels, I feel like that will make a difference.”

Schaefer said using cleaner energy at Penn State’s 24 campuses across Pennsylvania would set a good example for the state and other universities across the country.

“It’s not just us in Centre County,” Schaefer said. “Penn State is all across the commonwealth, and I think switching over to renewable energy will make a significant economic and environmental impact.”

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Across the state — especially in the Centre County region — there’s been an increased awareness and desire for renewable energy, according to Buck.

“Ten years ago, almost everyone thought solar power was some weird thing and it wasn’t going to work in Pennsylvania,” Buck said. “Yet, we get 70% of the sunlight that Arizona does — and that’s a lot of sunlight.”

Since Pennsylvania receives large amounts of sunlight, Buck said solar energy sources are an increasingly accepted commodity. According to Buck, the region and state are seeing an increased use of rooftop solar and ground mounted solar on houses.

“There’s still plenty of concerns by people about using renewable energy, and some of those are really good concerns — but all and all, people are eager for renewable energy in Pennsylvania,” Buck said.

Despite increased recognitions of the potential applications and benefits of renewable energy, some students said there’s still room for improvement.

Hudson Wagner, a member of the Penn State Student Sustainability Advisory Council, said many students don’t know about the university’s renewable energy projects and sustainability measures.

“If we have a quarter of our energy coming from the solar project, then I think students should know that and know why that’s important,” Hudson (senior-energy engineering) said.

Additionally, Schaefer said many students who don’t directly study renewable energy and sustainability lack knowledge on renewable energy options and benefits.

“If you’re heavily involved in the sustainability world like I am, you hear [about renewable energy options] all the time. If it’s in your major, like for energy engineering or mechanical engineering, you hear about that,” Schaefer said. “But outside of that realm, your stereotypical student who’s not in the sustainability world or is not an engineer may not get as much exposure to [renewable energy education].”

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Penn State faculty members, like Jones and Buck, said Penn State students have various opportunities to learn about sustainability practices through courses and programs.

According to Jones, the university offers various areas of coursework to educate students on sustainability.

“A critical way to show Penn State’s commitment to sustainability is by offering relevant educational programs,” Jones said. “Through the Penn State World Campus, students can pursue bachelor’s degrees in energy and sustainability policy and graduate degrees in renewable energy and sustainability systems. We also offer graduate certificate programs in solar energy and sustainability management and policy.”

Through these programs and other measures established by Penn State, Jones said the university has been recognized for its leadership in renewable energy. In 2021, Penn State was rated above all other participating Big Ten schools in sustainability performance by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

According to Jones, Penn State also ranked third in the U.S. and 35th in the world out of 767 schools participating in 2020’s Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings, which he said is related to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

Buck said Penn State students have also won various competitions centered on sustainability measures. For instance, he said students have received award-winning recognitions in both the Department of Energy’s Race to Zero solar house development competition and the American Wind Energy Association’s Collegiate Wind Competition in recent years.

Buck said people often think of Stanford University, the University of California or the University of Pennsylvania as leaders in sustainability and renewable energy. He said Penn State would also fall under that category now — especially after making the agreement with Lightsource bp.

“So, here we are in the middle of Pennsylvania, and we have some of the best solar and wind engineering students and faculty in the United States.”

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