The frontier for American renewable energy is on college campuses

“Renewable Energy 101” report shows universities how to move away from fossil fuels

Jake Taber
Nov 27, 2018 · 4 min read
One of Carleton College’s two wind turbines is expected to provide about 25 percent of its electricity needs.

Read our new 11-step guide on moving your campus to 100 percent renewable energy here.

For many people who work on the issue of climate change — from the scientists who document our warming world to the advocates who push for mitigating public policies — the report released last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) seemed to galvanize people more than reports of its kind have in the past.

Maybe it was the severity of the IPCC’s warning that hit home for so many. The report detailed a “strong risk of crisis” by 2040 if humanity doesn’t act to radically transform our energy system over the next decade. In the face of a problem so stark, a response that stops with changing our lightbulbs and driving hybrids seems a little quaint. These are good starts, to be sure, but now more than ever, it’s clear that we need to commit to generating 100 percent of our energy from renewable sources as quickly as possible.

In the United States, it’s unlikely that the current administration and Congress will commit to such a move. That’s why advocates and organizers are working to win more localized commitments, and not just in state legislatures or city halls.

Among our country’s major institutions, universities are well-positioned to lead America’s transition to clean power. One reason: Colleges use a lot of energy, and big research institutions are particularly power-intensive.

More importantly, though, colleges are major employers and centers of research and technical expertise. They’re centers of economic and cultural gravity in their communities and states, and when they commit to climate action, they raise the bar for everyone else, setting the stage for other universities, corporations, institutions and cities to follow suit.

Every campus is different, and at first blush it might seem like some universities have an easier path to 100 percent renewable energy than others. For example, Arizona State University deploys solar panels across their campus to take advantage of abundant, southwestern sunshine. That may not seem as bright an option in cloudier locales. And how can a college using tuition dollars to pay reasonable utility rates to get power from fossil fuels justify switching to renewables?

Here’s how:

Renewable energy has come a long way over the past decade. Between 2008 and 2017, solar generation in the U.S. grew 39-fold, while wind generation grew 5-fold. Old assumptions about renewable energy’s limitations as a niche, expensive fuel are largely outdated. A report published this year by Deloitte notes that solar and wind are already approaching “price and performance parity” with “conventional” sources.

If the trends that have brought renewables into the mainstream continue, then in the near future, solar, wind and geothermal could become the preferred energy sources for universities and other large power consumers. That’ll be important to consider for schools trying to meet carbon neutrality or climate goals on 20- or 30-year timelines.

Moreover, there’s a path to 100 percent renewable energy generation for any university that wants to get there — not just campuses in sunny New Mexico or windy Kansas. The 11 strategies and technologies laid out in our new report, “Renewable Energy 101,” are a starting point for administrators, students or faculty who aren’t quite sure how their school might achieve that goal.

Is your campus downtown in a big city, without much space for on-campus power generation? Our report shows that by purchasing renewable energy off-campus or financing renewable energy projects, like Boston University or American University do, big institutions can easily reach 100 percent renewable electricity in the short term.

Is your school adding buildings — and increasing its carbon footprint — too fast for renewable energy purchasing or installation to keep pace? In campus buildings, which consume more than 80 percent of the energy used by universities, we show that improved energy efficiency can cut overall energy use by up to 60 percent. Meanwhile, geothermal heating, which can be intrusive to install in existing buildings, is more easily incorporated into new construction.

Is your institution on pace to use 100 percent renewable electricity in the near future, but still burning fossil fuels to heat and cool campus buildings and power campus vehicles? Our factsheets on building electrification and electric transportation show how schools such as Stanford University, Green Mountain College and Western Michigan University are transitioning away from fossil fuels and scaling up electrification for these energy uses.

There’s never been a better time for campuses of all shapes and sizes, in every state, to commit to powering their operations with 100 percent renewable energy. If you’re trying to figure out how your school might get there, read our report.

Note: Advocates know that even a good plan needs community support to become reality. If you’re interested in running a campaign on your campus to push for a 100 percent commitment, email me at We’re helping students across the country advocate for renewable energy at their university by connecting them with resources and helping them plan campus campaigns, and we’re always looking to meet new allies in our quest for a brighter, safer, healthier future.

Jake Taber

Written by

Clean energy fellow with Environment America @EnvAm. @TuftsDaily alum. Colleges can get to 100% renewable energy and so can America.

Environment America

Environment America is a federation of state-based, citizen-funded environmental groups working for clean air, clean water and open space. Part of The Public Interest Network.

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