When the University of Richmond signed a power purchase agreement with sPower over the summer, they set a course to become the first higher education institution in the southeast to match 100% of its electricity needs with solar energy. And only the second institution in the entire country to do so besides Hampshire College in Massachusetts.
The deal, made in consultation with Edison Energy, calls for construction of a 20-megawatt solar energy facility that will span 130 acres in Spottsylvania County, about 50 miles from campus. Named after the university’s mascot, Spider Solar will have 47,000 panels and is expected to come online in 2020.
Although Spider Solar is designed to operate as a stand-alone photovoltaic array, the university says that it will be part of a larger sPower 500-MW facility — the largest solar array in Virginia, and one of the largest on the East Coast.
To find out more about how the university pursued this pioneering solar PPA, Energy Manager Today caught up with University of Richmond director of sustainability Rob Andrejewski and senior associate vice president of finance and administration Mark Detterick.
What was the impetus for procuring solar power?
Rob Andrejewski: In 2007, University of Richmond committed to achieving carbon neutrality by becoming a signatory of the President’s Climate Commitment. Our 2010 climate action plan laid out how we would achieve that goal by 2050, with an interim goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below baseline levels by 2020.
By committing energy efficiency projects, renewable energy credits, and onsite renewables, we have reduced our emissions by 25% to date. Our 2020 goal opened us up to exploring large-scale renewable energy as a way to meet our GHG reduction targets.
How did the university leadership make the decision to sign an agreement with sPower, and which factors were considered?
Mark Detterick: This was obviously a new concept for most of us and we engaged experts — Edison Energy as well as outside legal counsel — to help review, prioritize, and negotiate myriad options. The entire process was approximately 12 months and included multiple discussions with our business management committee of the board of trustees.
Andrejewski: Collectively, we established a variety of project criteria, including economics, environmental attributes, proximity to campus, educational opportunities, and counterparty experience and issued an RFP. Following a thorough review of proposals, sPower emerged as a great match.
Why are so few American colleges and universities doing this?
Andrejewski: Not only is this type of PPA unfamiliar to most university administrators, the deal structure and energy market requires a good bit of education. We benefited from the experience of other schools that have done virtual PPAs as well as the foresight to work with a partner. I believe the arc we’ve followed — efficiency, RECs, onsite renewables, offsite renewables — will become a familiar story at schools across the country.
What advice do you have for leaders at colleges and universities who are considering PPAs for renewable energy?
Detterick: I suggest pulling together the internal experts from the beginning. As an institution that champions interdisciplinary studies, the PPA process was an excellent example of how facilities, legal, and business can collaborate for sustainability initiatives. That being said, don’t go at this alone — engage outside experts.
Andrejewski: The value of an internal champion in finance who understands how decisions get made at multiple levels cannot be overestimated. Procuring solar is a team sport. We also took the time we needed to understand each step before moving on to the next. It may have been slower that way, but once we built that internal capacity, we were able to move fast.
What’s next with the Spider Solar project?
Andrejewski: Permitting, site preparation, and working with the utility on the interconnection are happening now. We are excited that sPower will be opening a Richmond office soon, which will allow us to connect our students to opportunities with our partner. For us, that’s what it’s all about.