WashU and its students take leading role in reducing carbon footprint

Renewable energy and building efficiency are evolving quickly in the United States, and Washington University in St. Louis is at the forefront. The University is working to achieve an aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goal through significant investments of time, creativity and capital.

Not only is the university reducing its carbon footprint by installing solar panels on several buildings and increasing building efficiency, it’s providing plenty of opportunities for students to get involved with the sustainability efforts through experiential courses, research and internships, says Phil Valko, assistant vice chancellor for sustainability.

In the past couple of years, WashU has installed panels on more than a dozen buildings across all of its campuses that total approximately 550 kilowatts of solar photovoltaic (PV) power, over 2200 solar panels. Student interns with the Office of Sustainability played an important role identifying the solar sites by evaluating building energy demand, roof size and shading, among other factors. The energy the panels produce is used to power the buildings, in turn reducing the amount of largely fossil fuel based energy needed from the grid. To put it in perspective, the solar panels produce enough energy to meet the annual electricity needs of 65 average US homes, and the annual emissions reduction is equivalent to the amount of carbon sequestered by 460 acres of US forest.

One on-campus structure with solar panels is a carport located over two electric vehicle (EV) charging stations near the School of Engineering & Applied Science, developed in cooperation with professor Pratim Biswas, PhD. He and a group of his students are working to create a microgrid that will route the energy generated by the solar panels into a bank of batteries that will in turn power the EV charging station.

Valko is currently working with a graduate student to develop a touchscreen dashboard in Olin Library that will display real-time energy data from the University’s solar PV installations. The dashboard will also be a hub of information about other campus sustainability efforts, including green building, waste reduction, alternative transportation and more.

The Sustainability Exchange and Green Rehab Project are two additional ways students can get directly involved in innovative energy work.

The Sustainability Exchange is a new interdisciplinary course that challenges students to develop solutions to complex, real world problems. Students work in teams with faculty advisors and community clients to develop a project or produce a product that moves the needle.

As part of the Green Rehab Project – an effort to transform century-old student apartment buildings into net zero energy buildings – students have played many important roles, including helping design the apartments, selecting the building systems, analyzing energy use data, and making policy recommendations to advance net zero energy building. Net zero energy buildings produce as much energy as they consume on an annual basis, requiring both on-site renewable energy and highly efficient building design. The University has completed construction on the first two experimental buildings, including rooftop solar panels, super-insulated walls and ceilings, and heat recovery ventilators.

All of these projects are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to energy and sustainability issues at WashU, with students involved in nearly every facet of the University’s work.

“Energy technology is advancing quickly, and we have the opportunity and responsibility to lead,” Valko says. “WashU is a leading institution in teaching and research; our students, faculty and staff are working together to also be a leading institution in developing solutions to the most pressing challenges facing humanity.”