WASHINGTON -- Two universities in the nation's capital have agreed to a major energy deal to buy more than half their power from three new solar power farms that will be built in North Carolina, the schools announced Monday night.
George Washington University, American University and the George Washington University Hospital announced the 20-year agreement with Duke Energy Renewables to reduce their carbon footprints by directly tapping solar energy.
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.
The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, said this is the nation's largest nonutility solar power purchase. It will also create the largest photovoltaic solar power operation east of the Mississippi River.
"We'll be directly sourcing our electricity from three solar energy sites," said George Washington University President Steven Knapp. "We're not just buying certificates for renewable energy. We're actually directly sourcing from renewable energy. The impact of that is pretty huge."
Solar power generated in North Carolina will move into the Washington region's electrical grid for the universities. An equivalent amount of conventional electricity will be withdrawn from the same electric grid.
The 20-year deal provides fixed pricing for solar energy at a lower price than the schools currently pay for power, thanks in part to its large scale. Over the full 20-year term, university officials are hoping the shift to solar could yield millions of dollars in savings as the cost of conventional power is expected to rise.
George Washington University spent about $13 million last year on electricity, and American University spends about $5 million.
Both universities have been looking for renewable energy sources for several years. At one time, American University considered buying a wind farm. But the deal with Duke Energy Renewables won't require upfront capital costs for either school. It resulted from a competitive bidding process that included about 28 companies representing both wind and solar power, Knapp said.
American University President Neil Kerwin said the school is pursuing an aggressive goal to become carbon-neutral by the year 2020.
"We felt an institution our size in partnership with one the size of GW could send a pretty strong message about both the feasibility and the wisdom of both the partnership and the move toward renewable sources of energy," Kerwin said.
Alex Perera, a renewable energy expert at the World Resources Institute, said the university partnership for a large-scale solar-power purchase could provide a model for other schools or large institutions to buy renewable energy directly.
"These kinds of long-term contracts from good-credit buyers can really be helpful to renewable energy developers in helping them get the financing they need to get projects built," he said. "It also allows buyers to get more value out of renewable energy."