View of the UC from Linderman Library

Lehigh University announced Monday it has entered a solar energy partnership that will help it offset 100% of its electric emissions. (Ryan Hulvat)

Solar Partnership Will Help Lehigh Offset 100% of Electric Emissions

Lehigh and Lafayette, Muhlenberg and Dickinson colleges join forces for unprecedented renewable energy purchase. It will be the 12th largest higher education renewable energy project, in terms of megawatts, in the country.

Editor's note: In April 2024, Lehigh announced a Power Purchase Agreement with eight other colleges and universities in North Carolina and Pennsylvania to bring an innovative, large-scale solar facility online in western Kentucky. The partnership replaces the former agreement between Lehigh, Lafayette College, Muhlenberg College and Dickinson College, and expands on the work initiated in 2020.

Offsetting 100% of electric usage with renewable energy would have once been only a dream for a college or university, but now it’s a reality for four Pennsylvania colleges and universities.

Lehigh University, Lafayette College, Muhlenberg College and Dickinson College announced Monday, at Second Nature’s 2020 Higher Education Climate Leadership Summit, a partnership to purchase renewable energy as a collective. Together, the four schools will purchase the largest amount of solar power of any group of independent higher education institutions in the nation. They also represent the first group of colleges and universities in Pennsylvania to enter into a power purchasing agreement.

“Climate issues are a critical global challenge,” Lehigh President John D. Simon said. “This project is one opportunity for Lehigh to demonstrate climate leadership and to energize the campus and broader community. We are proud to partner with other nearby institutions in a project that both advances our sustainability goals and shows the effectiveness of leveraging collaborative agreements.”

Students on Goodman Campus constructing solar panels

Students construct solar panels on Lehigh's Goodman Campus in 2016. With a new solar energy partnership, and other on-campus efforts, Lehigh will be able to offset 100% of its electric emissions. (Christa Neu)

The schools have signed a 15-year virtual power purchase agreement to buy renewable energy that will be generated by a newly-constructed 200-plus-acre solar farm in Texas. The new solar farm will be the 12th largest renewable energy project involving higher education institutions, in terms of megawatts. Because it will be built as a result of this purchase, the project will add additional renewable energy to the country's grid.

“The actions that these schools have taken illustrates true leadership, a collaborative approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and provides an example of how other campuses can meet their individual climate goals and support the transition of the electricity grid to cleaner sources of power,” Timothy Carter, president of Second Nature, said.

Fewer than 50 of the nation’s approximately 4,200 higher education institutions have initiated new large-scale renewable energy projects.

For Lehigh, the collective project, combined with other on-campus energy and efficiency efforts, will enable it to match 100 percent of its current electricity usage with renewable energy.

Lehigh’s share of the power will be the largest out of the four schools in the partnership and the cost of procuring this renewable energy will be competitive with its current sources of power.

Doug Spengel, Lehigh’s associate director of utilities and energy management, initiated the conversations with CustomerFirst Renewables, a renewable energy procurement consulting firm, in fall 2017 and Lehigh Facilities staff officially met with the firm for the first time in March 2018. In January 2019, several schools, including Muhlenberg and Lafayette, joined Lehigh and began collaborating in pursuit of a renewable energy project. Dickinson joined the effort five months later.

Students on Goodman Campus constructing solar panels

Students construct solar panels on Lehigh's Goodman Campus in 2016. With a new solar energy partnership, and other on-campus efforts, Lehigh will be able to offset 100% of its electric emissions. (Christa Neu)

“Aggregating demand enabled this group of mid-sized and small buyers to cost-effectively access the environmental and social benefits of renewables, positioning these schools as true sustainability leaders among higher education institutions, large and small,” CustomerFirst Renewables CEO Gary Farha said.

Each of the four schools involved in the project will obtain renewable energy credits from other Texas projects through December 2022, when the selected project site is expected to reach its projected commercial operation date. The consortium’s share of the project is 45.9 megawatts and is anticipated to prevent over 70,000 metric tons of carbon emissions each year, which is equivalent to removing over 15,000 cars from the road or the amount of carbon sequestered by nearly 85,000 acres of forest.

The group evaluated each potential renewable energy project across myriad factors, including environmental impact, grid-avoided emissions impact, project economics, project developer credentials, development risk and education and research opportunities provided to students. Though the schools were initially focused on contracting for a local project, analysis indicated that, due to the more carbon-intensive fuel mix of the Texas grid, a Texas-based project would result in roughly 15% more avoided emissions than a project sited in the local mid-Atlantic grid. As a result, they opted for the additional environmental impact of the Texas project. The project carries the additional benefit of being sited on barren land, allowing the group to avoid the tree clearing or farm displacement often required for mid-Atlantic-based projects.

The project also will generate educational and research opportunities for students. The project developer will conduct rotating guest lectures at each of the four institutions. In addition, two students from the participating schools will be selected each summer for eight years for internships. The schools will also have access to real-time production data from the solar asset for research purposes at each institution.

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