Tar Heels Turn it Green With Inefficient Solar Power Program

Morrison Residence Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill was closed in the spring of 2005 for renovation. When it reopens in the fall of 2007, not only will students’ accommodations be nicer, but solar panels will be used to heat the building’s water.

While many campus activists and administrators are excited about the project, the solar heating system is financially inefficient.

The new Morrison Hall will have about 200 solar panels placed on the roof and their energy will heat about 60 percent of the building’s hot water. From that, a saving of $11,275 annually is projected.

The solar hot water system is funded by a $137,455 grant from the state legislature, $184,000 from student fees, and $125,000 from University housing and residential education funds. The project was originally anticipated to cost $309,000, but estimates are now as high as $446,000.

The state Energy Policy Council approved a Clean Technology Demonstration Grant for the renovation project last year, and the student fees were generated when students approved a $4 per semester increase in student fees to support a renewable energy campaign on campus in 2002. The fees are overseen by a student group called the Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee (RESPC).

Questions about the efficiency of the solar project were raised early in the planning stages.

Carolyn W. Elfland, Associate Provost for Campus Services wrote an email to Charlie Anderson, former head of RESPC on October 20, 2003 discussing how much RESPC should contribute to the project.

“…if RESPC’s mission is to encourage use of renewable energy technology, which we know costs more than it returns financially, then RESPC should pay whatever it takes to make the investment financially reasonable,” she wrote.

Recognizing the low rate of return on the investment, Ralph Taylor, UNC energy manager, wrote in an email on November 18, 2004 that “based on the total project cost for the solar system and the annual value of the hot water produced, the simple payback appears to be well over 20 years and approaching 30 years.”

Taylor’s email also reveals that the North Carolina Energy Policy Council was concerned about the cost efficiency of the system when they screened UNC’s original grant application. “Some of the members felt this was entirely too long, and was not a good choice for these funds,” Taylor wrote. “Others felt the project was suitable as a clean energy demonstration.”

An outside energy expert also regards the “green energy” project as a poor investment. Speaking at UNC on April 20, 2005, Howard Hayden, a former physics professor at the University of Connecticut, pointed out that solar collectors are a financially inefficient source of power.

“Solar energy is very dilute,” he said. “All projects large enough to produce sensible quantities of energy involve huge amounts of real estate.”

Hayden also doubted that the Morrison Hall project would actually save the University $11,275 per year. “Most of UNC’s energy savings will come from better insulation and better windows,” he said.

If energy analysts agree that the Morrison project is not financially efficient, why would they agree to spend thousands of dollars?

According to RESPC, “The main goals of the project are to increase awareness and understanding of renewable energy, to promote the use of renewable energy and renewable energy markets in North Carolina, and to contribute to environmental stewardship…”

In addition to solar panels, the project will install monitoring tools in the Hall so that students can observe the effectiveness of the system. According to Erin Zurieck in her January 18, 2005 article for The Daily Tar Heel, “As an incentive to cut energy consumption, residents in Morrison might compete to determine which floor can use the solar energy most effectively.”

While educating the public is a worthy goal, it seems that the University’s desire to raise “awareness” and contribute to “environmental stewardship” is more of an effort to make students and faculty feel good about a politically correct project than an effort to produce tangible results.

Does building an alternative source of energy that is not economically viable truly educate the public? Or does its existence spread disinformation by making people believe that “green energy” projects are necessarily efficient?

Despite the excitement over the Morrison project and UNC’s effort to increase renewable energy, the solar hot water system is actually inefficient use of student and state money. It will neither save the University money nor educate the public about viable sources of renewable energy.

The project’s sole benefit to the state will be building UNC’s reputation as a “progressive” university.