How I Discovered the Solar Panels on ELC: Eastern is secretly greener than you knew.

By now you have probably at least seen that you have a bill for the spring semester. If you look a little closer at the bill, you will find a section called “fees” and tucked away in there you will find a “Green Energy Fee”.

At that point you may have thought “isn’t that nice” and carried on. Many of you may have contacted accounting and gotten them to waive the fee (which is a thing you can do; it’s voluntary). Or, you may have thought, “What? Green energy? At Eastern?” If this last reaction is yours, here’s a brief introduction to the green energy status of Eastern.

You may have dug a little deeper. If you did, you probably discovered a page on Eastern’s website entitled “Green Initiatives” which outlined recycling, solar, and wind initiatives. You may have also found a page entitled “Green Energy Program” which contained a link to a promotional “postcard” which claims that “Eastern University was the first college in PA to power a campus on 100% wind energy.” It then claims that Eastern is still powered by exclusively wind and solar power.

Still, you ask? Like 2020 still? I don’t have an answer to that yet, although the fact that we’re still paying for it in our student bills would suggest that Eastern is still purchasing wind power. I have not yet tracked down confirmation that the money is really going to Community Energy: the organization which the “Green Initiatives” page claims sources our wind energy. Community Energy does exist, and they do partner with a variety of organizations on green energy projects. They also offer Power Purchase Agreements (PPA’s) which allow organizations to purchase power from wind and solar farms around the U.S.

However, I have been able to confirm one part of the story. There are, in fact, solar panels on the roof of ELC. Granted, I have not seen them myself, but here’s what convinced me. If you go to the “Green Initiatives” page and you click the link under “Solar Panel Generations” you will find a live graph of the power being produced by the solar panels on ELC. According to that site, the panels have been operating since Jan. 2016, and this month alone (Jan. 2020) they have already produced over two and a half megawatt hours (MWh) of power. To put that in perspective, it’s the amount of energy that would be produced by burning 190 gallons of gasoline. Over the course of their lifetime so far, these solar panels have produced over 503 MWh, which is the equivalent of 53,484 gallons of gasoline.

And now we come to the sad part of the story. When I first looked into this, the link to the solar panel monitoring site wasn’t working at all, and the link entitled “Eastern’s partnering with Community Energy” took me to an athletics FAQs page. When I contacted Plant Operations at Eastern, it was apparently the first they had heard of this. They contacted Eastern’s IT department and reached out to Community Energy and eventually got the link up and running. However the wind energy link now just takes you to the “Green Energy Program” page which actually tells you nothing about any partnership with Community Energy. This is one of the reasons I’m not completely convinced we are still living on wind power.

The story of how these initiatives got started is a fascinating one, but I will have to tell it another time. It is enough to say that in a previous era (around 2006-2008, when this initiative was started by students at Eastern) there were students who cared deeply about these sorts of things and were committed to shaping Eastern to reflect their values. Now those students are gone, and apparently no one took up the cause after them. Now it seems that very few students even know these initiatives are (or were) in place. But is our ignorance due to the lack of publicity on the part of Eastern, or is it due to our own lack of inquisitiveness and, perhaps, lethargy?

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