Macalester is once again on the brink of being a solar-powered campus. The college recently applied for funding under a solar panel initiative by the state of Minnesota and Xcel Energy that would cover the costs of adding solar panels to the roof of Markim Hall.
Solar panels were one of the original features of Markim Hall when plans were drafted in 2009. When building began, however, the panels were cut in order to keep the project on budget. Since then, Macalester has tried and failed twice (in 2013 and 2014) to receive the energy grant that would allow them to finance the solar panel addition.
Now more than ever, solar panels may be a viable option for the campus. Vice President for Administration and Finance David Wheaton said that since Markim was built, the cost of solar panels has dropped about 80 percent, by the administration’s calculations.
Wheaton said adding solar power to Macalester has long been a goal.
“It has a modest value from a cost standpoint, but it has big value from a symbolic point of view,” Wheaton said. “But we’re looking more and more seriously at it as the price has become more and more reasonable.”
For one of Macalester’s environmental student organizations, MacCARES, now is the best time for solar power to be introduced as well. Jack McCarthy ’18 and Shelby Witherby ’18, co-chairs of MacCARES’s Solar Power branch, emphasized how accessible the solar industry is right now.
“Its one of the fastest growing industries in the US and especially in Minnesota,” McCarthy said. “The rebate itself, the tax incentive is the Made in Minnesota rebate. These solar panels are actually made by 10k Solar, which is based in Minnesota. And they’d be installed by Cooperative Energy Futures which is run by Timothy DenHerder-Thomas who is a Macalester graduate.”
“So it’s investing locally, it’s investing in Mac graduates, it’s investing in the future of the Earth. Who can say no to that?” Witherby said.
Timothy DenHerder-Thomas ’09 is a Mac alum and founder of Cooperative Energy Futures, the company whose installation proposal Macalester would use. He explained why receiving the incentive would be so important to the project.
“The total cost [of the project] is a little under 45 thousand dollars,” DenHerder-Thomas said. “And the incentive year to year brings in about 25 or 26 hundred dollars a year for the first ten years. So that covers about 25 or 26 thousand dollars of the total cost for the first ten years.”
DenHerder-Thomas and Wheaton both confirmed that, should Macalester receive the incentive, students could see the glimmer of solar panels on Markim Hall as soon as next fall. Installation would occur over the summer and, even taking into account possible setbacks, be complete by about August.
Suzanne Hansen, Macalester’s Sustainability Manager, said that students could expect more than just an energy impact if solar power makes its way to campus. For her, there could be some great educational implications as well.
“In all of our discussion about solar, I want to make sure that we can get the data so we can put it on a website and have classes look at it and maybe do tours of the solar place,” Hansen said. “And our ‘Science of Renewable Energy’ course or any of our environmental courses that look at renewable energies, could do some social science surveys on the perceptions of solar, you know it could be a really good, what you call in my world, a living laboratory. So it’s not just a purely technological fix. It’s best benefit would be [the] educational opportunity.”
Wheaton said he also hoped this project could be the start of a larger solar movement on campus.
“In some ways, I would say my dream would be for the solar panels to become so light that we could put them on top of the Leonard Center,” he said. “That’s a huge flat roof. Most people don’t know that the roof is flat. We’re very hopeful that sometime in the future, we’ll be able to take advantage of the technology.”
MacCARES, the Sustainability Office and the Administration are also considering other solar projects like solar gardens and farms. A solar garden is a commercial grouping of solar panels that produce energy on a much larger scale than most private solar panel projects. Individuals or organizations can purchase power from the gardens for their personal energy use, which results in a reduction of the amount of energy they have to purchase from energy companies.
“It looks right now financially possible. I mean, it’s cheaper, and it might save us some money,” Hansen said regarding solar gardens and farms. “They’ve done this in Colorado at Colorado College and they saved them over 1.25 million dollars.”
Wheaton is cautious, but interested, in the prospect of solar gardens.
“Right now, we want to make sure that we do all of our homework to make sure we know exactly how it works, but we’ve had several meetings on that subject in the last week and it looks intriguing,” he said. “It’s a very interesting concept. It’s solar on a commercial scale.”
There is a very real possibility that this proposal could meet the same end as Macalester’s previous proposals. DenHerder-Thomas said that the incentive lottery Macalester has entered is highly competitive.
“I really couldn’t say whether the chances are substantially better or worse than about 25 percent, which is what it was last year,” DenHerder-Thomas said.
If Macalester were to lose the lottery, Wheaton said, the administration hasn’t decided what will happen to the solar panel project.
“We haven’t made a decision yet. We want to see how that plays out first,” Wheaton said. “It’s an interesting challenge to try and trade off all the different capital demands that we have for things that we need fixing in 65 different buildings. So if we don’t succeed with this, I think we’ll have to have a conversation about what we do and when and where it sort of fits in to the cycle.”
McCarthy and Witherby said if the incentive plan fails, they’d still like to get the administration to make a definite commitment to solar on campus.
“I’m hoping that we could show a petition to the administration saying, ‘Look, all of these students want solar panels on campus, they know how much it costs, we want it,” McCarthy said.
“It’s really up to the student body to make the institution sustainable. Right now the administration is not trying to be as sustainable as they need to be. There’s still a long way to go and students need to take it there. Students need to demand more of the school on this,” Witherby said.
Wheaton believes that he feels that solar will definitely have a future at Macalester, regardless of how it arrives here.
“Solar is moving in a direction where it’s getting cheaper, it’s getting physically lighter so that makes it more possible to install in more places,” Wheaton said. “We have a natural limitation on campus — we couldn’t turn Shaw Field into a solar farm — but I think we’re really going down the two paths of what we could do here to generate a small amount of electricity and what we could to in respect to connecting to this new initiative around solar and solar farms that we’re looking at much more actively than I would say six months ago. So stay tuned.”