By Debra Erdley
As Pennsylvania colleges venture deeper into alternative-energy sources, they're giving crucial support to fledgling energy companies.
Eight Pennsylvania colleges and universities are cited as top alternative-energy buyers in the Environmental Protection Agency's 2013 Green Power Challenge. Among them, Allegheny College and Carnegie Mellon, Duquesne, Mercyhurst and Chatham are amid Western Pennsylvania's rich coal and gas deposits.
According to the EPA, their purchases offset carbon-dioxide emissions equivalent to those from 70,233 vehicles during a year.
Perhaps just as important, by making a stand for green energy, colleges affect the marketplace, said Blaine Collison, director of the EPA's Green Power Program.
Colleges that signed long-term contracts to purchase renewable-energy credits about 12 years ago formed the foundation that allowed Community Energy Inc. of Radnor to build the Somerset Wind Farm and later the Bear Creek Wind Farm in North Central Pennsylvania.
“Colleges were the biggest part of it — signing up for wind energy when there was none,” said Community Energy President Brent Alderfer.
Alderfer said Exelon Corp. agreed to provide wholesale credit for the project and put the energy on the grid. Colleges stepped forward as guaranteed retail customers. Carnegie Mellon, the first school to sign on, purchases national wind credits to offset 100 percent of its electricity.
When people take a look at the impact of climate change, I think it is people within the university community who see the peril of continuing to use the old, high carbon-dioxide energy sources,” said Carnegie Mellon engineer Marty Altschul.
At Duquesne, officials said purchasing renewable-energy credits is a matter of doing “the environmentally responsible thing for the next generation.”
“We really believe we're educating the future leaders of our country, and we need to set the right example,” said Rod Dobish, executive director of facilities management at Duquesne.
In Pennsylvania, where only 4 percent of the power that electric companies sell comes from renewable-energy sources, participation in the EPA challenge typically means many of the colleges must purchase renewable-energy credits. The credits support the production of alternative energy to offset the schools' use of power from coal, gas or nuclear sources that dominate electricity production here.
Universities concede there is a cost to these commitments but say that cost — which Altschul said adds less than 1 percent to Carnegie Mellon's bill — is small compared to the message it sends.
At Chatham in Shadyside, university sustainability coordinator Mary Whitney estimated that purchasing renewable-energy credits to offset 100 percent of the school's energy usage adds about $2,000 a year to its energy costs.
Chatham is among a growing number of schools that produce at least a portion of their energy.
Rooftop thermal panels on dorms at its Shadyside campus provide hot water. Its Eden Hall campus, under construction in Richland, will rely on solar and geothermal energy produced on campus.
“We're drilling the well for our geothermal system at Eden Hall today,” Whitney said.
Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.