Twenty solar panels will be installed on the edge of the Brady Hall roof while students are away for winter break.
A student group has been working for months to get the panels installed on the roof of a St. Thomas building. Contractors from Innovative Power Systems, who will install the panels, made the final decision to put the panels on Brady Hall. The student group claims the panels will lower the university’s carbon footprint and offset energy costs.
“We’re doing something substantial to help the environment,” said sophomore David Hackworthy. “It’s part of our duty as a Catholic university to be good stewards of the earth.”
Solar panel costs and benefits
The 20-panel, 3.5 kilowatt system will produce roughly the same amount of energy needed to power a house. Over the 30-year lifetime of the panels, they will supply enough energy to offset the emission of 94.5 tons of carbon dioxide that would have been released through burning fuel.
“St. Thomas has made a commitment to go carbon neutral,” said geography professor Paul Lorah, who is involved with the project. “That means we have to offset the 72,000 tons of carbon the university emits each year. This project is a drop in the bucket but it’s a great start.”
The total cost of the project is expected to be about $25,000. The student group received a $15,000 grant from the beverage committee to put toward purchasing panels. The beverage committee distributes the $50,000 St. Thomas receives each year from its exclusive contract with PepsiCo. The remaining $10,000 came from the physical plant.
The panel system will lower the university’s energy costs by a little more than $500 every year, according to Lorah. The amount of money the panels save the university could also increase if prices of other fuel sources rise.
“As the costs of coal and natural gas increase, the value of the solar panels will increase,” Lorah said.
Project timeline and future plans
The timeline for the solar panel installation had been pushed back for a number of reasons. Panel installation is currently scheduled to begin Dec. 19.
“We wanted [the panels] up when school started, but it took longer than we expected,” said junior David Dahl. “You don’t just get the cash, go to Target and buy panels. We had to negotiate payment contracts and the company we are working with, Innovative Power Systems, [and] had to do a structural analysis on Brady Hall to make sure it could support the panels.”
The structural analysis found that Brady Hall can support the panels’ weight, but the building must be re-roofed to ensure the building is ready for the panels.
Junior Kamal Mohamed said the process also took longer because St. Thomas requires union contractors.
In addition to the Brady Hall installation, Innovative Power Systems has installed “green” energy systems at other Minnesota colleges, including a solar panel system at St. John’s University and a wind turbine at Macalester College.
The students have already planned what they want to do next after the solar panels go up.
They plan to encourage all residence halls on campus to be more energy efficient by having inter-hall energy-saving competitions. They also want to educate other students about the benefits of going green.
“Once these 20 solar panels are up, having those will give us a base for creating other programs,” Mohamed said.
Half of the profits from the money saved by using the panels will be put into a student scholarship fund, Lorah said. In addition, Lorah and the students have gotten approval for a Donate-a-Panel program, where people can donate $1,000 for a panel. Lorah and the students are working on creating software that would allow donors to track the energy output of their panel.
“We have gained a lot of backing from the university administration,” junior Petros Paulos said.
The students said the project has been a learning process for them and for members of the university administration. They also said they hope the project will get members of the St. Thomas community talking about the importance of renewable energy.
“We had lunch with Father Dease and told him about the project,” Dahl said. “He was completely on board and loved the idea.”
The Rev. Dennis Dease wrote in an e-mail that the solar panel installation fits perfectly with the university’s commitment to become carbon neutral.
“Every little bit of sustainable energy generated will make a difference in the larger equation,” Dease wrote. “Moreover, [the solar panels] will serve to raise the conservation conscience of all of us.”
Katie Broadwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org