Bringing solar to campus? Maybe.

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By: Cody Boteler, Senior Editor

President Barack Obama is traveling to Alaska to call for action on climate change – an issue that, if you couldn’t tell by the banner that appears above this story, is something that I care deeply about.

To some, his trip is marred by hypocrisy – Obama recently gave approval to Royal Dutch Shell to drill for oil in the sea off the northern Alaska coast.

The burning of oil – like all fossil fuels – contributes to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and, thus, the changing climate. And, of course, drilling in the ocean can open the door for potential spills, reminiscent of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

I can understand the practicality, from a geopolitical standpoint, of continuing to develop domestic fossil fuels while pursuing clean alternatives. Oil drives not only our cars, but also the global economy – I just desperately wish that it wasn’t the case.

Thankfully, the federal government is not the only body that can make moves toward sustainable energy production. Towson University is taking steps to, potentially, have solar panels installed on campus.

If all goes to plan, Towson students could soon see solar panels on the roofs of Douglass and Barton houses, the University Union, the General Services warehouse building and, potentially, on a canopy over the Union Garage, according to Dennis Bohlayer, director of energy engineering and conservation.

The locations were chosen, partially, because of their high visibility.

“The reason we chose the buildings we did is because we wanted solar to be visible on campus,” Bohlayer said. “We wanted visitors to see that we were doing something for sustainable energy.”

Towson sent out a general solicitation, to which interested vendors could respond. The deadline for proposals has passed, and those received are now being evaluated.

Bohlayer said that the evaluation is not based entirely on price. The technical qualifications of the firms or vendors are evaluated, and, once that ranking is completed, a sealed envelope is opened with the prices.

“It’s not a matter of the lowest price winning, it’s a matter of blending technical qualifications and price to determine who provides the best value to the university,” he said.

Under the agreement that Towson has put out requests for, the university would not be purchasing any solar panels. Towson would instead be making use of a power purchase agreement, where the panels are provided to the university at no cost, and the university pays for the energy generated by the power.

‘The administration didn’t want to put any money up front, this PPA [arrangement] is how most companies and agencies do solar, to spread out the capital cost,” Bohlayer said.

Solar panels on campus would not be replacing the Power Plant, located between Linthicum and Newell.

The Power Plant uses natural gas boilers to produce steam to heat water around campus, electricity to produce chilled water for around campus and serves as a transforming station, where high-voltage electricity that is fed into campus is reduced to a lower voltage before being distributed.

Lucy Slaich, director of procurement for the university, said that some proposals have already come in.

“We are evaluating proposals, but state regulations preclude me from saying who or how many,” she said.

In the future, Towson may find itself covered with more solar panels. According to Bohlayer, the roof of Towson Center would be a great candidate for solar, because of its large surface area. However, the roof is old, and would need replacing before any panels were placed.

As it stands, the project to replace the roof of Towson Center is stalled because of funding issues. Once it is replaced, however, “it makes a great site for a very good amount of solar energy capacity,” Bohlayer said.

Towson began thinking about solar energy back in 2007, when the university signed on to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment Plan.

Drew Voigt and Sam Figueroa, two Towson students who have helped to push for solar panels on campus, said that they first caught the attention of President Emerita Maravene Loeschke in 2013. Later that spring, in April, the Student Government Association passed a resolution unanimously showing support for bringing solar energy to campus.

“I really have watched this project grow from the bottom up, from merely an idea that a few students felt passionately about. And now we’re close to seeing solar panels actually come to our campus,” Figueroa said.

Voigt said that he looks forward to one day telling his grandkids about helping to bring solar energy to Towson’s campus.

Speaking on behalf of the university president’s office, Director of Communications and Media Relations Ray Feldmann said that Towson remains committed to looking “at the increased possibility of solar energy on campus.”

Now, if you’re the average person (and still reading this – God bless you), you may be wondering what you could possibly do to help preserve our planet. After all, you don’t know how to create or install solar panels or how to shape national policy.

I really didn’t want to harp on the same old, same old, that people are always talking about. Carpool. Use energy efficient light bulbs. Recycle. Turn your lights off. Don’t leave your car running when you get out. Those are tired and overplayed.

But, as it turns out, I really should have. According to Chris Salice, director of the environmental science and studies program, a lot of the things that get played up again and again are really important.

“They’re not big things, but added up they can make a big change,” Salice said.

Salice also advocated a vegetarian lifestyle (I’ve tried, but haven’t stuck to it yet – I’m trying, I promise), and a lifestyle that is geared less toward consumption and is more locally based.

For Towson students, that is, surprisingly, achievable.

The Towson farmers’ market is held on Allegheny Ave., not that far from campus, on Thursdays until mid-November. Farmers’ markets are great for buying local and, if you shop with enough variety, pushing some meat out of your diet.

In addition, there are several resources in Baltimore that are great for green living. The Towerlight will link to some of those resources in the web version of this story.

“Change isn’t always fast,” Figueroa said, “but it’s always possible.”

 

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