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Holiday cheer for colleges leading the way

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jackiewheeler | Dec 23, 2011 06:00 AM

Now that all the papers are graded and final grades submitted, I’m feeling a bit of holiday cheer for my employer, Arizona State University, and I’m inclined to give them a shout-out for a cool thing they’re doing. They don’t, of course, really need my help; there’s a large and well-staffed publicity office that is determined to keep you apprised of the latest factoids about the new football coach, and all sorts of other newsworthy stuff that may also have the salutary effect of tempting you to enroll and/or contribute.

Still, you may have missed the press release back in September that heralded the university’s capability of generating ten megawatts of energy through its many solar installations, equivalent to 20 percent of its energy use. Lots of universities around the U.S. are “going solar,” including many in nearby Western states, including University of California San Diego, Colorado State University, Weber State University (Utah), and University of Montana. All have impressive arrays, but none, as of this writing, have yet reached the 10 MW mark.

ASU solarVisit the Tempe campus, where I work, and solar panels will likely be the first and most obvious thing you see. They look mighty impressive; ASU boasts that they “prominently display the university’s commitment to renewable energy and carbon neutrality.” That’s an understatement. They cover nearly every roof, and, in one of the latest versions, actually create a roof, or sort of giant ramada, over part of the enormous stadium parking lot, which is infamous for being the cheapest place to park but the farthest from classroom buildings. During our spring/summer/fall blistering heat, the long trudge to one’s car in “lot 59” is the most miserable thing you can imagine. Now, at least some of the long-suffering commuter students, faculty, and staff will be able to enjoy a bit of shade beneath the hundreds of panels mounted about twenty feet overhead. It’s a sight to see.

You may be wondering who’s paying for all this. Public universities in Arizona and everywhere else in the U.S. have been bitten hard by shrinking revenues in the recession. At ASU, there has been a terrible toll of lay-offs, program eliminations or mergers, pay-reductions, and furloughs. Class sizes have gone up, and tuition prices have skyrocketed.

And yet, public sector budgeting is a mysterious thing. Deals can be struck; “soft money” can be found. In the case of the solarization project, it’s the former. According to the ASU Chief Financial Officer’s website, various developers own and operate the installations. In return, they receive tax credits and utility incentives. For its share of the bargain, ASU gets to buy the energy at a favorable rate. Unless any of these relationships go sour (always a possibility), it’s a pretty decent thing, and decent things are worth being thankful for at year’s-end. Good on you, ASU.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Image of solar panels at ASU by Flickr user Kevin Dooley

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