The Solar Option

Julie Dostal '19
Features Editor

What do you think about putting solar panels on the rooftops of UVa Law? Would you care if you could see them or not? What if they paid for themselves in ten years or fewer? You wouldn’t be the first person to think about it. Our law school is actually a pretty good candidate for rooftop solar panels. Anyone who enjoys being outside in the courtyard knows why. We’re in a sunny spot: a simple truth we can capitalize on. Some estimates suggest the average payback period for rooftop solar instillations is seven years, after which time the system begins making money. Whether or not you’re excited about solar as way of reducing emissions, putting solar panels on the roof could save the Law School money on its energy bills. Those funds could then be spent on other important law school expenditures, like buying fancy lunches for students.   

Photo courtesy of Andrew Shurtleff

Photo courtesy of Andrew Shurtleff

In 2009, the University of Virginia Board of Visitors (BOV) pledged to reduce the University’s green house gas emissions twenty-five percent by 2025. Thus far, UVa is not on track to meet its emissions reduction goal. The production, use, and conservation of energy are the primary challenges preventing UVa from meeting its reduction target. The University has engaged in the easiest actions to reduce emissions. There was a noticeable five percent reduction in emissions between 2014 and 2015; however, the warmer weather, increased use of natural gas, and emission reductions from stationary sources accounted for 144 percent of this promising statistic. In order for UVa to meet its reduction objective, the administration will need to take bolder action. 

Notably, in 2016 and early 2017, the BOV and the Grounds Committee made sustainability a major goal for the upcoming year. For the first time, the Office of Sustainability is currently working on step one of a Carbon Action Plan and a Rooftop Solar Inventory. In December of 2016, Facilities Management and the BOV announced a 21 Megawatt King William County solar facility with Dominion Virginia Power. Darden Business School is actively participating in the project. By 2020, Darden’s portion of the project will enable the school to achieve its carbon neutrality goal for Scope 2 emissions. Darden’s administration is also considering rooftop solar panels for its parking deck to address Scope 3 emissions. Currently, UVa is evaluating a second utility-scale solar project with Dominion. 

By installing solar panels on the roof of the Law School, UVa Law has an incredible opportunity to help the University in totality with its greater greenhouse gas emission goals, while also significantly decreasing its own carbon footprint. UVa facilities management is currently considering the possibility of placing solar panels on the roof of the school. A recent estimate of our rooftop’s potential suggests we could install a 575 kW system, one that could generate an estimated 752,596 kWh a year, or fourteen percent of the school’s current electricity load. The Law School could engage in a structured power purchase agreement, which is a financial contract that provides a price hedge against increasing energy prices and generates renewable energy certificates to offset greenhouse gas emissions. Understandably, questions regarding cost may arise when discussing alternative energy installations. A study by the Sustainable Endowments Institute evaluating seventy-nine green revolving funds in 2012 found a median return on investment of twenty-eight percent and a median payback of three and a half years. Let’s just say I wish my payback plan for law school had such a short-term payback schedule.

In addition to cost savings, UVa, and more specifically the Law School, have other key reasons to prioritize a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency mitigate long term exposure to fuel price volatility. Also investments have the ability to mitigate long-term exposure to a potential carbon tax and negative public relations, as climate related events reflect back on the actions of major institutions. Furthermore, UVa law has the unique potential to demonstrate leadership in the field of alternative energy. UVa has failed to invest in energy efficiency at the same rate as other comparable universities. UVa has invested approximately one million dollars into energy efficiency funds compared to the 12 million invested by Harvard or the 10 million invested by Stanford. Investment in solar energy by UVa represents a valuable chance for the school to lead in large-scale sustainability and lend credibility to both the promises made by the BOV, as well as the phenomenal scholarship produced by the school on the topic of alternative energies. 

As law students, we are in an exceptional position to help UVa bring solar panels to the Law School and meet more general goals in the reduction of greenhouse gases. The Law School could set its own emissions reduction goal. This goal would likely be easily met through an investment in rooftop solar and participation in a structured power purchase agreement. UVa’s facilities management is already considering the possibility of rooftop solar panels for the Law School. As law students, we can use our voices to promote a positive viewpoint on investments into solar energy and show a greater overall commitment to leaving the Law School a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable place for future Wahoos.