Some Thoughts on the Recent Solar Deal and Why We Should Pause Before We Celebrate

EPA/Waltraud Grubitzsch

EPA/Waltraud Grubitzsch

On Tuesday, GW announced that the university, along with American University and the GW Hospital, is in agreement with Duke Energy Renewables to cut carbon emissions by transitioning to solar. The gist of the agreement:

The Capital Partners Solar Project will break ground this summer near Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Once fully operational in 2015 with 243,000 solar panels, the three solar farms are expected to generate 123 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. Planners said that translates to eliminating about 60,000 metric tons of carbon emissions per year or taking 12,500 cars off the road.

Undoubtedly, the shift to solar is good news.

We desperately need to cut our carbon emissions rapidly and transition to alternative forms of energy.

While we should celebrate the transition, there are implications of the deal worth considering.

First, the University will likely publicize the move greatly and take credit for it. And it should. This is a bold move in (arguably) the right direction.

However, I think it’s quite reasonable to question the University’s motives behind the move. This is a university that recently had a Shell Oil executive as a finalist for the business school deanship. GW also recently outsourced its investment positions, a move that suggests the University will not consider divestment without student pressure.

So why the decision to go solar? Perhaps it has something to do with the concern millennials have over climate change. It’s no surprise that climate change has become an important issue for young people. Perhaps, then, university energy and sustainability policies are becoming factors in attracting new students. It’s becoming more common to see rankings like this, listing the top 10 environmentally-friendly colleges.

I don’t think it’s out of the question to suspect that behind the recent big decision, there were motivations other than environmental concerns at play.

Which brings me to my second point. In the Washington Post article covering the news, American University’s Doug Kudravetz had an interesting quote:

“The price is lower than what we’re paying for brown power,” said Doug Kudravetz, American’s interim chief financial officer. “We fully expect this to save money over the long term, as well as mitigate any future price uncertainties.”

Obviously, this ties into my original point about exterior motives. If transitioning to solar is financially beneficial, GW may simply be making a smart business decision.

But there is also a broader significance to this quote. One of the main objections to alternative energy sources has been its price. Kudravetz’s quote echoes a notion that has been repeated by environmentalists: green energy is becoming cheaper. This is good news, and even corporate giants like GE are catching on. Hopefully, we will soon see other corporations and institutions follow GW and AU’s lead.

Third, if you’ve taken a look at our blog or Facebook page , you will have noticed that we have co-authored a press release on the big solar deal. Duke Energy Renewables, the company with which GW and AU are making the deal, is a subsidiary of Duke Energy. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because Duke Energy has been in the news quite a bit.

And here’s where the problem is:

Furthermore, the agreement is with Duke Energy Renewables, a subsidiary of Duke Energy. Duke is a fossil fuel corporation whose renewables comprise just 3% of its total energy generation. To make matters worse, they are responsible for the tens of thousands of tons of coal ash spilled into North Carolina’s Dan River in February of this year, after Duke ignored a decades-old warning about the likelihood of a spill.

Certainly, transitioning to solar energy is a positive step towards carbon neutrality. However, students should question the corporations with which GW does its business. We at Fossil Free are skeptical about our school’s commitment to the environment. Divestment from the fossil fuel industry will not end the climate crisis, but it will be a bold stand for the university to take, a statement that GW is, indeed, committed to stopping man-made climate change.

Finally, there are implications  we must consider about the role of private actors in the climate battle. Universities transitioning to solar, much like divestment, are ways in which private actors can take a stand in the climate crisis. As student environmental activists, we at Fossil Free recognize the unique ability that young people have to bring about real change. National and international fossil fuel divestment has the potential to deal a real and lasting blow to the fossil fuel industry, and more importantly, the way we think about energy.

However, it is also true that private actors like universities cannot prevent the disastrous effects of man-made climate change on their own. We need government to act and support policies that focus on abandoning fossil fuels. This is why Fossil Free GW, while primarily an organization dedicated to divestment, has taken a stand on issues like the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating moves by private actors that are “environmentally friendly.” In fact, we should pressure institutions like GW, through divestment, to take a stand in the battle for a clean and healthy environment. At the same time, though, we need to be aware of the limitations of the role of private actors and realize that we need monumental change at a policy level. For the most politically active campus in America, climate change needs to become a priority.


Written by Nick Watkins, Fossil Free GW Treasurer and Communications Director.