The Nation’s Oldest Public University Embraces Modern Technologies

The University of North Carolina’s 17 campuses, extending from the mountains to the coast, are as diverse as the state’s terrain. However, there is one thing they all share—recognition of the importance of greater adoption of renewable energy on their campuses. UNC, the oldest public university in the nation, is embracing modern technologies to fulfill its commitment to the state’s environmental health and the efficient use of energy.

UNC recently sent a team to RMI’s eLab Accelerator to learn how it can employ more renewable energy on its campuses. The UNC team believes that energy-related innovations transcend ideology, representing a broad range of benefits for the state and all of its citizens. That belief is founded on three ideals:

  • UNC has the responsibility to implement energy solutions that meet current demands, address future market conditions, are technologically and environmentally relevant, and position the university to operate cost effectively.
  • The role of higher education is to pursue curriculum and research opportunities that look to the future, addressing the issues and opportunities of the state as a whole. The state university setting, with its educational and research missions, is ideal for collaborations with public and private entities to stimulate innovation in emerging technologies and techniques.
  • The current and future students of UNC are demanding that the university pursues a sustainable energy future. North Carolina’s youth see the multitude of impacts that energy has on our past, present, and future. The university owes it to them to lead by example, so that their imaginative and entrepreneurial minds can help realize the full economic potential of North Carolina’s energy future.

“At eLab, our team from across several University of North Carolina campuses had the unique opportunity to convene amid many of the nation’s forward thinkers on energy and sustainability,” says Ged Moody, sustainability director at Appalachian State University, which is a part of the UNC system. “This focused time together—combined with the expertise on hand—enabled the team to advance its ideas beyond our expectations.”

The timing of Accelerator was perfect, as at the end of this month Appalachian State University will host the third annual Appalachian Energy Summit, bringing campus leaders from across higher education in North Carolina together to share best practices on sustainable energy issues. UNC currently spends about $1,000 per student per year on energy. Its financial goal is to save the state $1 billion over 20 years. Besides saving the university money, implementing more renewable energy on its campuses can help the university reach many of the other Energy Summit goals, including:

  • Educating students to be leaders of tomorrow through active and demonstrative pursuit of energy initiatives.
  • Transforming and stimulating the North Carolina economy through support of green energy business infrastructure, creating jobs in the new energy economy.
  • Positioning the UNC system as a national leader in sustainability education and in reducing fossil fuel reliance.
  • Creating a culture of environmental and economic sustainability across the UNC system.

The UNC team went into Accelerator focused on solar PV as a potential valuable source of energy for the UNC system. This viewpoint was strengthened during the four-day event. Yet the team learned that the North Carolina utility and regulatory environment presents challenges to emerging renewable energy business models, and that solar energy as a grid resource is largely undervalued. They also came away with the knowledge that given the current tax‐credit business models and the UNC system’s capital availability, building and financing large‐scale renewable energy resources will require external sources of funding.

During Accelerator, the UNC team developed a list of funding options, identified primary team members, met and built relationships with utility representatives, further developed their project vision, and came up with a plan for next steps. “Since eLab, our team has met every two weeks,” Moody explains. “We’re evolving ideas into actions that will one day benefit all citizens of North Carolina.” Although they understand this is difficult work, they realize that it is also extremely important work, and that the UNC team is developing techniques that will serve it and the state of North Carolina well into the future.