College Recovers, Looks Ahead after REC Setback

St. Mary’s students are looking towards a future of on-site renewable energy after a mistake by the college’s energy provider left 40 percent of the college’s energy consumption uncovered by Renewable Energy Credits (RECs).

These new plans arose after the College found that the Southern Maryland Energy Cooperative (SMECO) had neglected to read the largest of St. Mary’s four energy meters for the past three years. The mistaken bills that SMECO sent the College were used to judge the amount of RECs needed to offset the College’s energy use. The College was left with a substantial hole in its REC coverage.

To counteract this, plans have been put in place to cover this year’s REC deficit, and to cover the College further in the future.

According to SGA President senior Sunny Schnitzer, funds from the SGA’s special carry-over budget, which contains excess tuition money not spent on the College’s operating budget, will be used to buy enough RECs to cover the College’s energy consumption for this year.

The rest of these RECs will be bought from Clean Currents, as were the majority of RECs bought within the past three years. Clean Currents is a Rockville, MD organization that provides wind power-based RECs, which are some of the most environmentally friendly credits available. According to Schnitzer, however, buying a contract with Clean Currents to cover all of the College’s energy use is too expensive for the long-term.

For next year, members of the Sustainability Committee, Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), Student Government Association (SGA), and other concerned students plan to use this debacle as an opportunity to move away from RECs and towards on-site renewable energy.

According to Sustainability Coordinator Christophe Bornand, the first step to be taken next school year will be to change the college’s REC provider from Clean Currents to cheaper providers that can be bought through SMECO. According to Sustainability Fellow Meredith Epstein, ‘08, this will save the College more than $3 per megawatt, and will leave around $30,000 in the green energy fund for on-site projects. However, Schnitzer pointed out that the Sustainability Committee and the SGA were still getting quotes from different companies, and that no particular provider has been decided upon.

Going with less expensive RECs, however, means that the College will be investing in forms of energy that, although renewable, are still somewhat toxic to the environment. According to Bornand, there is some concern that cheaper RECs may generate their own pollution and may not offset electrical consumption properly.

According to Sustainability Fellow Rachel Clement ‘08, although less expensive RECs may not be as environmentally-friendly, the savings provided by the change to cheaper RECs will go into research and development on new forms of renewable energy that could eventually take the College completely off the traditional power grid. Clement said that solar hot water heating, which consists of solar thermal collectors and fluid systems to move the heat from the collector to its point of usage, is “at the front of our discussion.”  She also said that other possible on-site renewable energy sources could include small or large wind turbines or larger solar arrays to complement the solar panel currently on the roof of the library.

However, both Fellows also acknowledge that many steps must be taken before on-site renewable energy can be implemented. Clement said, “We have to research what is the most viable form of renewable energy for St. Mary’s.”

There is also the matter of paying for these forms of renewable energy, which will at first take more money than the green energy fund can provide. Any viable on-site renewable energy option would require a significant investment, but would pay for itself in time. Epstein said, “People tend to think what’s feasible is what’s immediately the most economical, but we’re talking about things that will cost a lot up front and pay us back really fast, and will save us a lot of money in the future.”   Because of this, the Sustainability Committee has been researching different possible grants that could help pay for this on-site power generation.  Epstein also said, “It’s being talked about that we would offer to different organizations and firms that St. Mary’s be used as a test site for new renewable technologies, so that we actually wouldn’t have to pay for, for example, the latest edition in high-efficiency solar panels.”

Regardless of the path St. Mary’s takes on its way to energy independence, the goal is still daunting. “[Energy independence] is not going to happen in the short term,” Bornand said. “It’s going to take a lot of time.” However, if the college ever does become energy independent, it will be steps like this that makes it happen.
“I think [energy independence] is possible, and that we’re on the right track,” said Schnitzer.

All who would like to have their input heard on the issue of on-site renewable energy can send ideas and feedback to sustainability@smcm.edu.

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