Beacon of Hope: Gustavus moves towards a more sustainable future

Emily VanGorder – Staff Writer

Discussions about installing solar panels at Gustavus have been occurring over the last ten years. President Bergman announced on Wednesday, February 17, that solar panels will be installed surrounding the Arbor View apartments to reduce energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions on campus.
“I’ve been involved from the beginning in terms of recruiting the company [Novel Energy] to help us make a decision… I was also involved in conversations with the city of St. Peter and the Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Association (SMMPA) on the regulations side,” Professor in Physics and Environmental Science Charles Niederriter said.
The first attempt to install solar panels was over ten years ago. A company approached Gustavus and offered to install the panels and help with financing.
“We set up meetings and conversations… mostly that got shut down because between the city of St. Peter and SMMPA, they did not agree that the financing would be acceptable. According to state law, SMMPA is the only company allowed to sell energy in this area,” Niederriter said.
Niederriter’s interest was re-sparked after a discussion with a friend who asked why Gustavus wasn’t using solar panels.
“He suggested this company, Novel Energy. We got involved with them and they were very patient with us and helped us figure things out,” Niederriter said.
Over the last three years, representatives from Gustavus, SMMPA, Novel Energy, and the city of St. Peter met over a dozen times to discuss the project. Eventually, discussions reached a standstill due to disagreements regarding financing for the project.
“Last summer I contacted people who worked for the Minnesota Department of Commerce, and they came up with three or four different solutions to get around the problem. Instead of making a power purchase agreement, meaning we would pay for electricity, we leased the equipment required to produce the electricity, which was acceptable to both SMMPA and the city,” Niederriter said.
President Bergman announced in 2019 that the college would commit to a 25 percent energy reduction by 2024.
“[The solar panels] should offset about 10 percent of our electricity, so it’s a good first step. We’re doing other things to meet that goal, but this is a big part,” Professor in Chemistry and Environmental Science Jeff Jeremiason said.
The lease is projected to save the college about $5,000 a year. An additional line also has to be run to handle the additional capacity out to Arbor View.
“[$5,000 a year] is not a huge cost savings. In terms of electricity, we spend over a million dollars on electricity… We did it to lower our greenhouse gas emissions… not strictly for financial reasons, but to be more sustainable,” Jeremiason said.
“One of the great things we have at Gustavus is land, we have plenty of space to put solar panels. Even as we’re talking about new buildings, we’re talking about ways to involve solar power in those projects,” Niederriter said.
“We’re going to be looking at some pollinator-friendly plantings there, what we’re going to grow amongst the solar panels so we’re looking for possibilities to be as sustainable as we can with what we do there. It would be nice to grow some perennials that could capture some carbon there as well. Some students have proposed putting beehives on campus somewhere, and that could be a location we look into,” Jeremiason said.
Solar panels are also being considered for the Lund renovation. The roof of the new fieldhouse is being built specifically to handle the weight and requirements of solar panels.
Students can expect to see solar panels being installed around the summer of 2021.
“I’m hopeful and confident that the amount of electricity we produce will reduce our need to buy electricity by 6-7 percent, maybe 8 percent. This is a small piece, but a step in the right direction. I’m also hopeful people will see these things as useful and efficient, and think about investing more in campus. This project couldn’t be done without the support of a lot of people on campus… a lot of people have been involved through the President’s Environmental Sustainability Council, and that helped push this forwards and get it moving,” Niederriter said.

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