by Scott Brown
If there’s one collective enemy that all Northwestern students have, it’s the wind. In the winter, it pierces through all our foolish attempts at warmth; in the spring, it makes an otherwise perfect day just a little too cold. But wind has just proven it might not totally blow. With help from wind energy, Northwestern has moved into fifth place among U.S. colleges and universities for green power use.
As of this year, Northwestern is offsetting 50 percent of its total electricity usage. This is equal to about 122,000 megawatt hours (MWh) annually, or removing 17,700 cars from the road. This does not mean that all of NU’s energy is clean and green; in a state more than 40 percent powered by coal, that would be almost impossible. Instead, Northwestern purchases Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) from wind farms throughout the Midwest.
When a renewable energy utility, such as a wind or solar farm, generates electricity, it is mixed with all the other power on the grid, making it impossible to know if the energy you ultimately use is “green” or not. However, renewable utilities also create RECs, one for every MWh of energy produced. Purchasers can buy these certificates, essentially paying for the “greenness” of the energy produced. In return, the renewable producer receives a premium, supporting their work in clean energy generation.
“Illinois is a great geography for wind power,” said Rob Whittier, director of Northwestern’s Office of Sustainability. “So while we can’t necessarily put wind turbines on our campus… we can support the economic development of wind farms in Illinois and the Midwest, and that’s what we feel like RECs do.”
The rankings, which are compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership program, include over 1,300 partner institutions, from Fortune 500 companies to government agencies to about 130 U.S. educational institutions. The voluntary program, which Northwestern joined in 2006, encourages large organizations to use renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and act as an example to others.
“We showcase best practices so some schools don’t have to go over the same hurdles as the leaders did,” said Anthony Amato, a contractor with the Green Power Partnership. “A lot of schools, even if they just have a small amount of renewables to start… they start doing more over time, and pretty soon they’re doing something significant like what Northwestern’s doing.”
While renewable energy can be costly, Amato stressed that there are many options on the market. He said many schools actually save money by installing solar panels to generate their own power. Northwestern has jumped on this opportunity with a 20,000 kWh solar panel array on the roof of the Ford Motor Company Engineering and Design Center. This is enough power to run a computer lab in the building. However, this is only a fraction of a percentage point of the university’s total energy use; the majority of its green power comes through RECs.
Other universities among the top five green power users include peer institutions like the University of Pennsylvania (No. 1) and Georgetown University (No. 2), as well as Big 10 rival Ohio State University sneaking right above NU at No. 4. However, the numbers can be misleading, as the rankings are based on total annual green power usage in kWh.
“Those schools are just so big that, even offsetting less of their total electricity purchase than we do at 50 percent, they’re still gonna beat us,” Whittier said.
He’s right; Ohio State is offsetting 22 percent of their total electricity use, less than half of NU’s amount, and UPenn is just a hair ahead at 51 percent. But that doesn’t mean NU is about to sit back in its energy throne.
“I think if the University looks at our longer-term goals, we should think about what our long-term vision might be,” Whittier said. “Climate neutrality, or being net-zero, might be a goal we want to think about for 2030.”