Investigating the Viability of Renewable
Energy Options

illustration of an academic assignment

The New York Times' Energy and Environment column this week offered a list of institutions who are pursuing geothermal energy projects this year. Often funded by stimulus grants, the projects are desirable both because they can reduce carbon footprint and because they can reduce heating costs significantly. The number of institutions investigating solar, wind, and biomass options is also growing.

For colleges considering their first investment (or a new investment) in renewable energy generation, due diligence in assessing the viability of the different options available to you is crucial -- both so that you can identify the option that will be most cost-effective in both the short and the long term, and so that you don't run into uncomfortable surprises midway through the project. We asked Ryan Pletka, project manager for renewable energy at Black & Veatch, for his advice on what questions leaders in higher education should consider prior to making a renewable energy investment.

Technical Feasibility

First, look into the technical feasibility of different options, given your region.

"Before anything else, ask: Is there actually a resource there? For example, geothermal sounds like a great resource, but it is only really practical for a few sites, mostly in the West."
Ryan Pletka, Black & Veatch

You need a region with seismic or volcanic activity in order to have a hot enough source of steam to generate enough geothermal power to be useful. Similarly, even if your institution is located in a windy state, you need to measure wind speed at available sites in order to ensure that a wind turbine installation would actually be cost-effective.

Quantify both Initial and Life Cycle Costs

Second, compare both initial costs of your different options and the ongoing operations and maintenance costs.

For example, suppose you are considering a solar installation on a large dormitory roof. This will entail a conceptual design process to determine the size of the system needed, where exactly that system will connect into campus power, and what structural improvements will be needed to add this additional load to the rooftop. In the case of a wind turbine, you'll need to look for suitable sites and then determine whether you need to upgrade the land or cover the cost of building a maintenance road out to the site.

Most renewable energy technologies, Pletka notes, have a higher up-front cost than conventional energy, but a lower annual cost because you are not buying fuel (unless you are considering biomass fuel). The largest lifecycle cost will be the staff needed to maintain the new system. If you have an improvement or a new facility moving in, you will either need to dedicate your own staff to it or contract with an outside company. Make sure the cost is included in the initial estimate.

Pletka offers an additional caution. There is frequent innovation in the rapidly growing renewable energy industry, especially in photovoltaic technology, and college leaders ought to be careful of companies promoting new technologies that haven't been proven yet. When preparing for a significant up-front investment and a long payback period, it pays to make sure you're relying on a tried and true product.

Look into Grants and Subsidies

Third, find out what grants or subsidies might be available from the utility, the state, or the federal government. If the institution is paying the full cost, solar photovoltaics are usually only cost-effective in the Southwest, yet certain northern states that don't have a reputation for being "sunny" do have subsidies and incentives that make solar panels much easier to finance.

"Often, available subsidies can make the difference between a project that isn't quite viable and a project that is feasible."
Ryan Pletka, Black & Veatch

Pletka recommends regularly reviewing the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency, an online resource managed by North Carolina State University.

An additional item to consider is that many states have net metering. In that case, if you expect to generate excess solar or wind energy, you will want to investigate options for selling power back to the grid.

Determine Impacts and Plan for Outreach

Fourth, you need to ask about environmental impacts and the potential impact on your surrounding community. This entails both:

  • Investigating the cost and effort of getting the project permitted
  • Reaching out to the local community and addressing concerns as early as possible

Permitting is easiest with solar, Pletka observes. But with wind turbines, you will have a lot of issues to consider, whether in a semi-urban or a rural setting:

  • Complaints over visual impact
  • Noise complaints
  • Safety issues and proximity to other structures
  • A study will be needed to ensure the turbine isn't in a migratory flight path for birds

A biomass plant might sound like an excellent and cost-effective idea, but if there is likely to be community opposition to having a new power plant in the neighborhood, you will want to address this at the outset. "Keep in mind," Pletka notes, "that you will be trucking in wood chips or other waste through the areas surrounding the plant."

It's better to work with your community at the outset than to fight a town-gown battle later. Make sure that you have determined what the impact of the new installation will be, and make sure that an intentional plan for outreach is part of the earliest discussions of an investment in generating renewable energy.