by James Heffernan
Photo courtesy Secure Futures LLC
A small Christian liberal arts university in Harrisonburg has become a model for clean, renewable energy, harnessing sunlight to help power its 97-acre campus nestled in the city’s north side neighborhoods.
Eastern Mennonite University is home to the largest solar power project in the commonwealth, using 328 photovoltaic panels on the roof of its library to generate 104.3 kilowatts of electricity — about 2 percent of its overall electricity needs. A second campus solar project in the pipeline, which will consist of raised solar canopies above the north parking lot of the University Commons, would push that figure up to 9 or 10 percent.
Secure Futures LLC, a Staunton-based solar energy development company, owns and operates the EMU installation through a subsidiary, Community Solar LLC. Secure Futures’ president and CEO, Anthony E. Smith, is an associate professor of business at EMU and co-director of its MBA program. He uses the project as a case study for students and the community on the practical benefits of solar energy. “EMU is demonstrating that solar power represents a good financial and social investment — doing good and doing well,” Smith says.
The project builds upon the university’s legacy of energy efficiency dating back to the 1970s and fits squarely within its central tenet of “creation care,” according to President Loren Swartzendruber. “It’s important for all people of faith to be concerned with stewardship of the Earth’s resources,” he says.
The library panels were installed last fall and already are outperforming expectations. As of March 1, the array had saved the equivalent of 17 barrels of oil, 20 trees and more than 24,000 pounds of carbon. During the projected 35-year life of the solar panels, the project will eliminate more than 6,000 tons of greenhouse gases. EMU students, faculty and visitors can follow the panels’ performance by clicking on the “solar energy dashboard” link on the university’s website.
Smith, a former commodities trader, says EMU’s 20-year solar power purchase agreement, which includes an advance payment of 10 years for the output off the panels, may be the first of its kind in the country. The university buys the electricity at a “grid-parity” price equivalent to the rate it pays for power from its current provider, Harrisonburg Electric Commission, and Secure Futures will pass any savings back to EMU as an annual credit. “In many respects, it represents a hedging strategy for the university” against the volatility of global energy prices, Smith says. “For that portion of its electricity, the university has a known cost for the next 20 years.”
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