SOU receives additional $1 million in state support for solar arrays
(Ashland, Ore.) — Southern Oregon University continues to leverage state and federal support for renewable energy projects, with the Oregon Department of Energy announcing last week that the university will be awarded a $1 million grant for the second straight year to build solar arrays on campus. SOU also received a $2 million congressional appropriation in December to help pay for its bid to become the nation’s first public university to produce all of the daytime electricity used on its campus.
The energy department’s Community Renewable Energy Grant Program awarded a total of $12 million to 39 recipients – Tribes, public bodies and consumer-owned utilities – to support planning and construction of renewable energy or energy resilience projects. SOU’s is one of seven projects that were awarded grants in the neighborhood of $1 million each.
“This grant award speaks volumes about our identity as a public university,” President Rick Bailey said. “This is who we are – fiscally innovative, environmentally sensitive and always mindful of our students and their experiences on our campus.
“This grant and other current and future funding opportunities will allow us to reduce our dependence on tuition as a revenue source, and increase accessibility and affordability for students throughout our state and region.”
The most recent ODE grant will help pay for SOU’s first parking lot solar array, which will consist of solar panels on steel structures in a lot adjacent to The Hawk Dining Commons. The structures will provide shading in addition to power generation, and the project will also pay for eight new electric vehicle charging ports – expanding the university’s total number of EV ports to 20.
Last year’s first-round grant in ODE’s Community Renewable Energy Grant Program – along with federal funding and a contribution from the Student Green Fund – will pay for solar installations on The Hawk Dining Commons and the Lithia Motors Pavilion/Student Recreation Center complex, and a battery storage facility to enhance community resilience. The $2 million congressional allocation will help pay for additional solar arrays on SOU’s parking lots and rooftops.
“Our momentum toward energy independence is very exciting and will be a game-changer for our university,” SOU Sustainability Director Becs Walker said. “We plan to be producing all of our own electricity within about 10 years, and ultimately to become a carbon net zero campus . This progress demonstrates our leadership in sustainability and the transition of the energy infrastructure.
Energy self-sufficiency will save SOU at least $700,000 per year in utility costs and President Bailey plans to expand the program from there, with additional solar installations and partnerships to further build energy and community resilience. He achieved that on a smaller scale at Northern New Mexico College, where he served as president before being hired at SOU in January 2022.
The current solar projects will increase SOU’s generating capacity to about 16 percent of the electricity it uses on campus.
The university has nine solar arrays on its Ashland campus with a total output of 455 kilowatts, plus an array at the Higher Education Center in Medford and a pole-mounted array installed by a nonprofit on land leased from SOU. The two new arrays supported by the state grants will increase SOU’s solar capacity by a total of 359 kilowatts.
SOU will continue to implement energy conservation and energy efficiency measures as it increases its solar power production. SOU’s Hawk Dining Commons and McLoughlin Residence Hall each have solar hot water systems installed to augment their natural gas domestic water heating, and the campus has three net-zero buildings – they create as much or more energy than they use. The university is also a partner in the DOE’s Better Climate Challenge, which supports SOU’s 2033 goals to reduce Scope 1 and Scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent from a 2018 baseline, and to reduce energy intensity by 25 percent from a 2022 baseline.
Solar energy production is a key part of SOU’s plan to develop new, entrepreneurial revenue streams and reduce dependence on the two traditional funding sources for public higher education nationwide – tuition and state funding. The university has also begun a project to demolish the vacant Cascade housing complex and replace it with a senior living facility that produces partnerships between its residents and the university. Funding for the demolition has been approved by the state and is expected to begin in the next several months.
Other projects that will produce revenue or reduce expenses for SOU include the establishment of a University Business District in southeast Ashland – discussions are underway with the local business community – and replacement of its operational software with the cutting-edge Workday platform, which eventually will save the university about $750,000 per year in recurring costs.
ODE’s Community Renewable Energy Grant Program was created by the 2021 Legislature, which set aside $50 million for projects throughout the state over three years – with $12 million available in the current funding cycle. The program is intended to build energy and community resilience in rural, underserved areas, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help to rewire America through the expansion of solar energy generation and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.