If you ask around about sustainability at the University of Utah, it won’t be long before you run into Kevin Emerson. Emerson graduated from the Environmental and Sustainability Studies program in 2002 and is currently the energy efficiency director for Utah Clean Energy, a nonprofit, public interest organization that works to drive the transition to a clean energy future.
When Emerson arrived on campus in 1998, the local renewable energy market was basically nonexistent, and major automakers were giving up on electric vehicles. Today, Utah is the sixth largest state for solar. National electric vehicle sales increased by 37 percent in 2016, with more than 2,650 electric cars added to Utah’s roads, according to the Governor’s Office of Energy Development.
The University of Utah has pioneered pathways for these market transformations. U Community Solar and U Drive Electric, two nationally innovative community programs, spurred the local markets and contributed to a more sustainable future.
But it started with Emerson.
“I’ve always been interested in the intersection of environmental challenges, the science of the impact our society has on the environment, and finding innovative policy tools to affect positive changes,” Emerson said. “I guess I just want to be part of the solution.”
Students establish a “green” fee
In the early 2000s, Emerson was director of Terra Firma, an Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU) group focused on helping the university implement more sustainable practices. Emerson and other student leaders from the club began asking, “What’s something, at a high level, that students can do to empower the university to support more renewable energy?” They imagined a university running on the clean power of the wind and sun, leveraging the university’s energy needs to create a local renewable energy market.
Terra Firma’s wind power campaign was born. Emerson and crew spent two years tirelessly organizing for a $1-per-semester student fee to be used for renewable energy. They held events, wrote Op-Eds for The Daily Utah Chronicle, created presentations, drafted resolutions for Staff Council and the Academic Senate and even orchestrated a postcard campaign petitioning the administration to work with ASUU to implement the fee.
“We never think about where our power comes from,” Emerson explained. “Our work was intended to help other students connect our high quality of life, which includes having power wherever we are on campus, with the source of that power in their minds.”
After graduation, Emerson stuck around Salt Lake, volunteering for the wind power campaign. The students’ efforts paid off with the 2004 implementation of the wind power fee. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any local wind power to purchase. The students settled for the next best option — purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates on the open market.
Leading the way with “green” currency
Renewable Energy Certificates, also known as RECs, are the currency of renewable power. They represent an intangible accounting of the amount of renewable energy produced by a wind farm, solar farm or other clean energy producer. Just like stocks, RECs are sold, bartered or traded on the open market.
With the wind power fee established, and university’s Facilities Management division diligently purchasing RECs. Meanwhile, Emerson began working toward a master’s degree in environmental sustainability at the University of Edinburgh. After graduation, he returned to Utah to discover a new sustainability effort underway at the U. This time, students and faculty were riding the crest of the campus sustainability movement and working to formalize the university’s commitment to sustainability. Emerson was drawn in, assisting with the 2007 launch of the Sustainability Office.
In 2008, former U president Michael K. Young signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, pledging the university to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The REC purchasing program, supported by the wind power fee, became a major feature of that goal. For institutions like the U, more RECs means less net carbon emissions. Purchasing RECs on the open market— even those generated far from campus— was far more cost efficient than developing renewables on site.
The robust REC purchasing program began to draw national attention to the university. By 2012, the U was one of the top three “green power partners” for the EPA, thanks to the REC program, and emerging on-campus solar installations. However, there was a nagging feeling that more could be done. Myron Willson, deputy chief sustainability officer at the U and 1997 Master of Architecture graduate, wanted to ensure that the university’s use of the wind power fee aligned with Emerson’s and his peers’ hopes.
“Though we were in the top colleges for the EPA’s program, the original intent to promote local renewable energy market was unmet,” Willson explained. “When you purchase a REC, you may not be supporting new solar development because RECs typically do not increase investment in renewable energy. There are people who argue they aren’t really driving the market.”
Willson and Stephanie Dolmat-Connell, then sustainability manager for Facilities Management at the U, began to imagine how they could return to the students’ original intent to spur a local renewable energy market, while still advancing the university’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. By now there were RECs available from Salt Lake City power producers, but at $10-12 compared to the $1 non-local RECs the university was already buying, switching to local would take the U further from its carbon emissions goal.
Perhaps, by diverting a small portion of the wind power fee, they could design and implement a community solar purchasing program that would stimulate the market without reducing the university’s RECs. The university would be the first in the nation to lead such an initiative, and they would need help.
U becomes first institution of higher education to offer a community solar purchase program
Willson and Dolmat-Connell recruited Utah Clean Energy to help launch U Community Solar in 2015. A portion of the wind power fee was diverted to help administer the program, which leveraged group purchasing power to offer a substantial discount for homeowners on solar, a simplified and stream-lined solar installation process and pre-screened solar installers. Homeowners who were part of the university community in Salt Lake, Summit, Davis, Utah, Wasatch, Tooele and Morgan counties were all eligible to participate.
Before they could get the program off the ground and on to roofs, they needed an advocate to get university support at the highest levels. So they went to Amy Wildermuth, chief sustainability officer, who was looking for new ways to advance the university’s sustainability goals. Wildermuth immediately caught the vision for U Community Solar.
“We wanted an impactful way to partner with the community that would truly make a difference locally,” Wildermuth said. “We are part of Salt Lake City, we are part of the county, and we have to think about how we could include people in what the university is about and be a model for what is possible.” With help from the university’s legal and purchasing teams, Wildermuth was able to shepherd the project through various issues associated with REC donations.
Once the program opened up, the response was immediate and overwhelming. More than 1,000 people signed up to learn more. At the conclusion of two rounds of the program, 598 homes installed solar through the program, producing 3,186 kilowatts of power. When the group pricing for U Community Solar was released, installers that were not a part of the program dropped their rates to match.
The installed systems provide solar power for their residents, not for the university. However, participants could choose to donate their RECs back to the U, enabling the campus to receive the environmental credits for these new solar projects. More than 80 percent of the participants decided to donate their RECs.
“These are small home systems, but we have nearly 600 of them in and around Salt Lake City now,” Willson stated. “Six hundred times one tiny system equals three times the amount of solar power we’re currently producing through all of our on-campus solar installations combined.”
Utah’s expanded solar market
Community members benefited from the low cost to purchase a solar power system, the university benefited from the RECs and Utah benefited from an expanded solar market. In 2016, Utah became the sixth largest state for solar. This was a 10-spot jump from 2015, according to the U.S. Solar Market Insight report created by Greentech Media Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Other institutions have conducted community solar programs, including the University of Maryland and Weber State. The University of Utah remains the only college to receive donated RECs from this program. In part this is because the REC donation process is a complicated proposition, requiring someone adept at deciphering the fine print.
After the program was up and running, Wildermuth started to imagine what was next.
“Once you put solar onto rooftops, it gets you thinking about how we might truly solve our climate predicament,” Wildermuth said. “The transition plans that appear most viable at this point are electrifying everything and then having the grid provide renewable energy. And although I had never driven an electric car, which I now highly recommend to everyone, I thought they were just plain cool.”
The next big challenge was on: Could the university adapt U Community Solar’s successful model in order to connect the dots between a utility grid and smart, clean technologies?
U Drive Electric is born
Tailpipe emissions contribute nearly 50 percent to Utah’s urban air pollution. As one of the state’s largest employers, the U has taken the charge to help reduce emissions from commuting staff, faculty and students.
In a 2016 report on consumer views on plug-in electric vehicles from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, nearly a quarter of respondents stated that they expected to purchase or consider purchasing an electric vehicle in the future.
“We thought that if we did a program to help spur the market, we could help normalize an activity,” Willson said. “Lack of awareness regarding the benefits of an electric vehicle is a barrier for people purchasing electric vehicles. Along with fuel savings from spending less per mile for electricity than gasoline, there are also savings from fewer maintenance bills like oil changes and tune ups.”
Once again, the university reached out, working with Salt Lake City and Utah Clean Energy, supported by generous grants from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, Utah Clean Air Partnership and Patagonia Outlet of Salt Lake City. Now, Willson and colleagues would take the community solar model and apply it to electric vehicles.
U Drive Electric became a community-level electric vehicle purchase program offering community members the opportunity to purchase or lease electric vehicles at a discount. The program drove targeted customer demand during a limited timeframe, offering discounts on various battery-electric and plug-in-hybrid electric car makes and models.
Through two rounds of the program, 203 electric vehicles were sold. This level of sales in the Utah electric vehicle market “is unheard of,” according to Richard Bell, alternative transportation specialist for the Governor’s Office of Energy Development. “Other institutions should copy and paste what U Drive Electric has been able to accomplish. I think these future programs will also have a huge impact and be very successful across multiple industries.”
Perhaps U Drive Electric and U Community Solar were so successful because they fostered positive action.
“A lot of our work asks for people to sacrifice — drive less, turn off the lights and remember to recycle,” Wilson said. “One of the things that’s most exciting for me is that these programs inspired people while still advancing sustainability and the university’s goals. It would have been impossible for us to do this without the work that Kevin Emerson and other students did 15 years ago to institute the original student fee.”
The future of sustainability on college campuses
The Chronicle of Higher Education asked “whatever happened to the drive for campus sustainability?” The 2015 article charts the rise and fall of sustainability on campus, outlining its historical roots in facilities, and suggesting that in the future, the sustainability movement must become faculty-driven, rather than facilities-driven.
The success of U Community Solar and U Drive Electric suggest that maybe the drive for campus sustainability works best when it goes off campus, too.
“A wind power fee that started with Kevin Emerson and a group of students was not only visionary for its time, but it is an example in itself of sustainability. We have invested that money in wildly popular programs that have increased sustainability awareness and its benefits both on and off our campus,” Wildermuth said. “Like all our programs, we believe this demonstrates the kind of innovation and inspiration as well as partnership with the community that the University of Utah is known for. We owe Kevin and his fellow students our deepest gratitude for what they imagined to be possible so many years ago, and are even more grateful that we get to work today with Kevin on these kinds of projects so that he can see firsthand the impact of this great idea. It is an incredible legacy.”
So is the drive for sustainability dead in higher education? Surely not at the University of Utah, where, after participating in both the solar and EV programs, many now drive on sunshine.