Top 10 US Solar-Powered Universities and How They’re Doing It


CSU Oval
Image: Colorado State University, by Justin H (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Universities across the country are not only working to make their students smarter, but also to make their campuses smarter and more energy efficient. And solar power is a big way that these schools are accomplishing their goals. Here are 10 schools that caught our eye with the ways they’re using solar energy and empowering their students and staff to do the same.

1. Northwestern University

Northwestern made its foray into solar power in 2011, with a student-led initiative to install a 16.8-kilowatt panel display that generates around 20,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year. Students planned, proposed, and fundraised for the $117,000 project, and oversaw installation and project management start to finish.

2. Drexel University

In addition to installing solar-powered trash cans and compactors on campus and committing to purchase 100 percent of the campus’s energy from off-site wind and solar power facilities, Drexel has a program that supports their students, faculty, staff, and alumni in their efforts to obtain solar power for their own homes. Drexel works with a solar company to provide free energy usage assessments on community members’ homes. After the assessment, Drexel provides discounts and rebates to these homeowners, helping them to reduce the cost of solar array installation.

3. University of Arizona

The U of A has been adding more solar panels to their campus every year since 2009, reaching 28,095 kilowatt capacity in 2014. One of the university’s coolest innovations was a two-birds-with-one-stone project to install solar panels over a campus parking garage, achieving massive square footage for solar panels and providing much-needed shade from Tucson’s brutal sun. The solar panels are installed almost as a roof, creating an impressive visual effect along with a major power source.

4. Butte College

Located on a 928-acre wildlife refuge in Oroville, Calif., this small school was the first college in the U.S. to become a grid positive college. The school provides over 100 percent of its electricity needs via 25,000 solar panels. Together these panels generate 4.5 megawatts of direct current, or over 6 million kWh of electricity per year. This is just one of the many ways that Butte walks the walk as a school that aims to create leaders in sustainability and clean, renewable energy — the college also hosts annual green events like a Sustainability Ball and an Energy Awareness Fair.

5. University at Buffalo

The University at Buffalo has one of the most publicly accessible solar panel installations in the world. World-renowned artist Walter Hood designed “the Solar Strand” to create meditative and educational spaces for community members and young students. The beautiful open spaces and artistic positioning of the solar hardware produce a sculpture park feel, while visual effects with the panels’ reflective properties emphasize the installation’s magnitude. The university invites students from all over the state to come learn about clean, renewable energy and be inspired by how beautiful sustainability can be.

6. Colorado State University

CSU has a solar power system that generates 8,500,000 kWh annually — that’s 1,000 watts every hour for 8.5 million hours — and provides students with hands-on experience in solar power hardware maintenance and output analysis. Roughly 30 acres of the campus are designated to solar arrays that generate real-time data, enabling students to plan projects and envision more ways that solar energy can be used to benefit institutions, homes, and society.

7. Princeton University

Princeton touts one of the largest single installations at a U.S. college or university that, even on a cloudy day, can provide enough electricity for 7,800 laptops. The system creates even more energy than that when the sun shines fully. Check out their live update webpage, which shows what percentage of their campus’s energy was provided by various energy sources, including their solar array.

8. University of Tennessee, Knoxville

UTK is using solar energy to power cars. In March 2015 they completed a new electric vehicle charging station, fitting rooftop solar panels to power these designated parking spots. The charging station is connected to a lab in the electrical engineering and computer science building, providing students with array data that will enable them to learn about current solar technologies. The university is hopeful that these efforts will lead to further technological development for the next generation of solar power.

9. University of Utah

In 2015 the U of U not only completed their seventh rooftop solar panel installation on campus, but they were also the first university in the country to sponsor a community solar program that helped 380 homeowners commit to solar installations on their homes. The university teamed up with Utah Clean Energy, a local nonprofit, to provide discounts, credits, and know-how to U of U community members, making the installation of 1,800 kilowatts of solar panels on local residences a reality.

10. Santa Clara University

This school is working to install a “smart microgrid,” technology that can orchestrate weather reports with the school’s renewable energy system to maximize the energy output and determine the smartest ways to use it. The school’s system is projected to be so efficient that it could power the entire campus and nearby homes and businesses for a prolonged amount of time, even in the event of a major power outage.

Know of other schools that are doing great things with solar power? Tell us about them in the comments.

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