University to transition to majority solar power use

By DIVA PAREKH | April 25, 2019

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Chinneeb/CC BY-SA 3.0

New Sustainability Leadership Council will include students and faculty.

University President Ronald J. Daniels and Provost Sunil Kumar announced in a schoolwide email on Monday that under an agreement with Baltimore-based renewable energy company Constellation, around two-thirds of the electricity at all national Hopkins campuses will come from solar power. 

In the email, they also announced the creation of the Sustainability Leadership Council (SLC), which Bob McLean, vice president for Facilities and Real Estate, and Dr. Peter Winch, Social and Behavioral Interventions Program professor, will co-chair.

“Nine years ago this spring, with the global community facing increasing threats from climate change, Johns Hopkins University made an ambitious pledge to reduce its carbon emissions by 51 percent by 2025,” Daniels and Kumar wrote. “We are excited to share significant progress toward that goal and the new steps we are taking to build a sustainable future.”

Hopkins will buy 253,000 megawatt hours of solar power per year, starting in 2021. Daniels and Kumar explained that this will reduce carbon emissions by 123,000 metric tons within the first year of use. Campuses including Homewood, Peabody and the School of Advanced International Studies will run on 100 percent solar power. The School of Medicine and the School of Public Health will be partially supplemented by solar power. 

Senior Naadiya Hutchinson, who recently won the Office of Sustainability’s Green Blue Jay award, was excited about the University’s transition to renewable energy sources.

“In the environmental science realm, solar power is starting to become way more cost-effective, and it’s an investment that pays itself off essentially through the generation of free energy,” Hutchinson said. “Once you have the panels, you’re not paying as much for maintenance on them — so they pay themselves off really quickly. It’s a really strategic time to invest in solar.”

Vice President for Communications Susan Ridge detailed how the solar agreement will function in an email to The News-Letter.

“The new solar energy agreement will replace the current supply agreements (sourced from grid power that is made up of a combination of thermal, nuclear and renewable generators) beginning in 2021,” Ridge wrote. “This will reduce fossil fuel demand regionally and provide Johns Hopkins with the associated renewable energy credits (RECs) equivalent to 65 percent of the university’s electricity use.”

Sophomore Sam Mollin is the communications manager of Refuel Our Future, a student group fighting for environmental justice at Hopkins. 

For the past eight years, Refuel’s advocacy has centered around convincing University officials to divest completely from fossil fuel companies. In December 2017, administrators announced that they would divest from thermal coal companies but not divest completely. 

Though Mollin still believes that the University should divest completely, he claimed Monday’s announcement as a victory for Refuel’s activism.

“It’s a huge victory for student activism, and it’s a huge victory for the environment,” he said. “It’s the biggest solar deal in Maryland. It’s going to be powering a ton of our electricity. It’s a really important step to making sure that our carbon emissions are as low as possible.”

Environment, Energy, Sustainability and Health Institute Director Benjamin F. Hobbs, who is also an Environmental Health and Engineering professor, agreed. He credited a long legacy of student activism for prompting University officials to make this change to renewable energy. 

“It comes down to student involvement. It was student activism that prompted former President [William] Brody to form the JHU President’s Task Force on Climate Change in 2008 — it would not have happened otherwise,” Hobbs wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Important commitments were made by the University then to reducing JHU’s carbon footprint, enhancing research and education, and engaging the community.”

Mollin also appreciated that University officials created both the SLC and a new sustainability director position. He explained that by doing so, the University was setting a good example as one of the world’s leaders in public health.

“Our role is to be a leader, to push other big universities to make moves on climate change. We’ve done that with the sustainability leadership council, and that’s a good model,” he said. “Solar power is a good model — but full fossil fuel divestment is an even more important model to be set.”

He cited Middlebury College’s announcement in February that it would divest fossil fuel holdings in its $1 billion endowment as an example for Hopkins to follow. 

Hutchinson, however, approached divestment differently. She explained that though she would like to see the fossil fuel industry come to an end, it realistically will be around for at least 25 more years.

“There’s high volatility in the solar industry and in other forms of renewable energy because it’s a new market, whereas the fossil fuel industry has been around for so long that it has a lot of reliability,” she said. “The Board of Trustees has to think about the reliability because they’re worried that divesting would affect our endowment, and that would affect other things like financial aid.”

She wished that instead of making strategic schoolwide announcements to incite positive press, University officials let the student body know when they take smaller steps toward increased sustainability.

“There has to be a middle ground of people who work toward fully integrating divestment into the University’s framework,” Hutchinson said. “While divestment is still really important, we should be pushing for 100 percent renewable energy. We’re innovators — we can do it, and we have the brainpower to do it.”

Co-Chair of the newly created Sustainability Leadership Council Dr. Peter Winch added that the SLC would hopefully allow the University to keep making consistent progress toward sustainability. 

“There are academic programs that address environmental sustainability at the School of Public Health and in the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and in the School of Advanced International Studies, but they’re quite separate,” Winch said. “Students from one don’t know what students in the other are doing… We need to find out how to link these academic programs better.”

The SLC, Winch explained, will consist of a central committee and three separate subcommittees. The first committee is operations, which will address energy efficiency in buildings, waste disposal and recycling. 

The second is academic, which will focus on linking sustainability-directed programs at different Hopkins campuses. The final committee is research, which will encourage collaborations across University campuses and organize an annual sustainability symposium.

Winch added that the SLC will feature student voices in addition to faculty and administrators.

“We want to innovate; we want to build bridges,” Winch said. “I want to see the University lower its environmental footprint… We are the biggest private employer in Maryland, in Baltimore. If we do the right thing, it will set an example for others.”

Both Winch and Hutchinson asserted that when talking about sustainability, environmental justice needs to be part of the conversation.

“The burden of a lot of environmental problems falls on the poorest communities and racial and ethnic minorities. We generate more emissions and more garbage, and the poorer suffer the consequences,” he said. “That’s even the case in Baltimore, where the incinerator is in South Baltimore in a poorer neighborhood.”

Hutchinson agreed, adding that equity needs to be a larger focus at Hopkins. 

“While I do appreciate a lot of the efforts that are going around in sustainability on the University campus, we really are missing the mark in the sense that we don’t have a lot of equity in the environmental sector at Hopkins,” she said. “We aren’t really talking enough about how our environment is impacting Baltimore and the climate situation of Baltimore City. The University could integrate sustainability into more of their off-campus centers.”

Mollin added that though the University timed their announcements to coincide with Earth Day, students should remain conscious about their environmental impact throughout the year.

“You have to make sure that every day, every moment, you’re thinking about how you can make a difference in our climate,” he said. “Because we are definitely close to reaching irreversible levels of climate change. And if you’re not getting involved, now’s the time.”

Correction: The article’s original headline incorrectly stated that the University would move to majority solar power use by 2021. The University plans to begin transitioning to major solar power use in 2021.

The News-Letter regrets this error.

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