Solar power helps college cope with budget cuts

A New Jersey community college is reclaiming nearly US$1 million annually in budget cuts by meeting most of its energy needs with solar power. Funding will go to student activities and services.

(Image credit: Mercer County Improvement Authority)

Public universities throughout the United States have had their budgets cut deeply and often since the Great Recession began. One New Jersey community college has offset lost funding by installing a solar system on campus.

Mercer County Community College (MCCC) in West Windsor, NJ will save an estimated US$750,000 annually (70 percent of its energy requirements) in electricity costs by installing an 8 Megawatt solar system on campus. The solar panels will be installed on 45 acres of open space owned by the college.

The savings will be allocated toward student activities programs and services that would have been otherwise diminished or eliminated. A secondary benefit is that the system will supplement MCCC's renewable energy program.

"We are excited about the multiple ways in which this solar project will foster academic opportunities for MCCC students," said Dr. Guy Generals, vice president for academic affairs. "Such learning opportunities will break new ground in community college education, preparing students for a world that is moving further away from expensive, dirty fossil fuels and closer to clean, renewable sources of energy."

MCCC is receiving assistance from the Mercer County Improvement Authority, an organization that facilitates local public works projects. The Authority will own the project's title under a 15-year lease-purchase agreement with SunLight General Mercer Solar. $29 million of the project's funding was financed via the Authority.

Reducing facilities expenses with renewable energy is a clever solution to fund the continuation of helpful student services. I'm impressed by MCCC's willingness to think outside of the box to preserve its quality, and the community's commitment to higher education.

MCCC is not alone - here's a listing of universities that have embraced solar power for cost savings. Overall, however, institutions of higher learning have dealt with budget cuts by tightening up teaching loads, increasing class sizes, and keeping compensation costs down, said Dr. Arthur Hochner, president & chief negotiator for Temple University's faculty union.

"All around the country, unionized colleagues are not reaching contract agreements with administration, have had no pay increases, and have been hit with demands for cutbacks in pensions and health benefits...I don't know much about cost savings measure like facilities and fiscal plant, but something like [solar power] would be nice," Hochner said.

"It would have been great for Temple to have put solar panels on the roof of the new business school building, but they didn't."

Editor's note: I attended Temple University's Fox School of Business.

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