Occidental leads the way to 100 percent renewable by 2022

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The sun sets over the solar panels on Mount Fiji at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Oct. 31, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

At the northeast end of campus, a solar array of 4,971 panels covers part of Mount Fiji. Physics professor Daniel Snowden-Ifft spearheaded a movement from 2009 to 2013 to add the panels, which convert 12.6 percent of Occidental’s energy to renewable energy every year. Now, Snowden-Ifft has another plan in mind: make 100 percent of Occidental’s energy renewable.

Occidental is not alone in this effort — Pomona College, Harvey-Mudd College, Chapman University, University of Redlands, University of LaVerne, and another school that did not wish to be named have committed. The other Claremont Colleges may be included because they share the same energy source as Pomona and Harvey-Mudd, according to Snowden-Ifft.

The coalition of schools, called the Southern California Higher Education Renewable Energy Consortium (SCHEREC), started when Snowden-Ifft reached out in Feb. 2019 to other small liberal arts colleges in Southern California. Snowden-Ifft said the consortium’s goal is for all the colleges to reach 100 percent renewable energy in approximately two years. According to Snowden-Ifft, because the schools are all fairly small compared to other institutions or businesses, there is strength in coming together because the initiative only becomes financially worthwhile on a large scale.

The schools would pay to effectively lease a renewable energy plant somewhere in the country, which, if entirely solar, would be 530 acres, according to Snowden-Ifft.

Snowden-Ifft said the renewable energy that the farms produce will not make its way back to the schools. Instead, the green energy will be deposited onto the grid elsewhere. According to Snowden-Ifft, for every kilowatt hour of energy the schools take from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), they will put a kilowatt hour of 100 percent green energy back into the grid.

In order for Occidental alone to go 100 percent renewable, the college would need to offset 15 gigawatt hours per year of energy and a solar farm of 29 acres, according to Snowden-Ifft. Currently, the solar farm on Occidental’s campus produces 1.8 gigawatt hours of renewable energy per year. According to Snowden-Ifft, in order for the schools to become 100 percent renewable, the renewable energy farm would have to offset 277 gigawatt hours per year on a plant that, if entirely solar, would be 530 acres large.

“Okay, here’s the thing: Build this sucker [the renewable energy plant], and seven schools in Southern California go 100 percent renewable at the same time,” Snowden-Ifft said.

The consortium is not the first example of colleges switching to cleaner energy sources. Schools like the University of Arizona, Mount St. Mary’s University, and Colorado State University are ranked as some of the top schools in the country for solar energy use.

According to Snowden-Ifft, when an institution, educational or otherwise, decides to go renewable, they can choose to use Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), which are similar to stocks in that they represent the property rights to green energy production. Snowden-Ifft said the consortium plans to enter into a power purchase agreement (PPA) — a financial agreement that will entitle the consortium to RECs — by working with a firm that will design, build and install solar panels at a decided-upon location, creating a new renewable energy source. According to Snowden-Ifft, renewable energy is predicted to be net-revenue positive overall, meaning that the consortium should end up making money from their participation in green energy.

Bevin Ashenmiller, an associate professor of economics and former member of the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers during the Obama administration, said she has been on board with the project since the beginning. Ashenmiller, who is an environmental economist, talked about the expected rate of return on investment (ROI) with most sustainable energy projects.

“Energy efficiency projects, lighting projects and water projects — they’re actually projects you should do because they save you money,” Ashenmiller said.

There is not room on any of these colleges’ campuses to house the farm. According to Snowden-Ifft, the consortium has debated whether to locate the panel in Southern California to use as a teaching tool. However, according to Snowden-Ifft, the logistics of that are complex. Biology professor Gretchen North said that the desert should not necessarily be used for the location of the panels. She said that much of the open space in Southern California is desert, home to threatened species like the desert tortoise. Threatened species are one notch below endangered, and the desert tortoise has been classified as such since 1989.

“[The solar farms should be placed]outside of what is really a fragile and diminishing habitat, which is the desert. The desert is not the same thing as a waste place,” North said.

According to North, there is also a lot to learn from desert plants and animals, which have always adapted to extreme heat, in the wake of global warming. North said she is working with SCHEREC and Snowden-Ifft to find a place for the solar panels that will better protect natural habitats.

“I say the best thing we can do for the planet is to stop burning coal,” North said. “And so it seems to me like the most direct method [to go green] is to really try to convert those disgustingly awful plants to renewable fuel.”

According to Snowden-Ifft, the other option would be to place the renewable energy farm in a place with dirty energy. States like West Virginia and Pennsylvania rely heavily on coal to produce energy, and by placing the farm there, the states will benefit at much higher rates than California, which, as of 2017, produced about 32 percent of retail energy sales with renewable energy. By placing the farm in another location, the consortium can help implement green energy in places that more urgently need it, according to North.

According to Snowden-Ifft, the process of going 100 percent renewable is estimated to take two years from start to finish, with approximately six months of consulting, six months for bids and one year for building. Snowden-Ifft said the project is already underway. Noah Nagel (sophomore), a physics major, said he has been involved in video chats with officials from the schools in the consortium and solar companies.

“I’ve been watching the calls with the solar companies that we’ve been doing to potentially build this power plant,” Nagel said. “I’ve had the Google Docs all shared with me with questions we’re going to ask these companies. Right now, it’s four companies we’re trying to decide between.”

Snowden-Ifft said the consortium is close to choosing the clean energy company that it will work with.

“I am very much hoping that — by the, let’s say, middle to end of November — that we will have made the decision on the firm that’s going to take us through the process,” Snowden-Ifft said.

This article was updated at 3:15 p.m. Nov. 6 to clarify the power purchase agreement process.