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Is IU Focusing Enough On Renewable Energy?

Solar panels on Bloomington city hall

Five percent of Bloomington municipal building's power comes from solar installations. (Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

Solar panels are covering more roofs than ever here in Bloomington.

As part of a partnership the city has with a renewable energy group, solar panels are set to be installed on twelve homes by the end of this year.

As part of our City Limits Series, a resident asked us to look into why, with all of the city’s efforts, IU hasn’t followed suit.

In 2017, the City of Bloomington launched a program called Solarize Bloomington, an effort to make solar energy more accessible to its residents.

Initially, around 500 residents came out to hear about the program.

By the end of this year, Bloomington could have as many as 200 total solar installations.

Alex Crowley is the director of Bloomington’s Department of Economic and Sustainable Development. He says the city took action when it did because of a change in Duke Energy’s net metering prices. If panels were installed after December 2017, residents would get less money for the excess energy that they deliver to the grid.

With renewable energy efforts growing in the city, resident Jake McKinlay started to wonder why Indiana University hasn’t taken similar initiatives. He works for IU and has had solar panels on his home since 2014.

“I think ever since then, when I see roofs, I see opportunities to put up solar panels and as I go around campus, and especially as solar panels have sprung up all around the city I just see these empty roofs on campus," McKinlay says.

Jake McKinlay, IU building
McKinlay says he knows IU has programs and efforts aimed at making the campus more sustainable, and he's surprised not to see more renewable energy as part of that. (Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

According to IU’s most recent sustainability report, there are four solar power systems installed on rooftops across the campus. Bloomington has 31 municipal sites with solar installations.

Andrew Predmore, director of Sustain IU, says the university decided to take a different approach, focused on energy efficiency first. He says this makes sense because the university has over 800 buildings across the statewide system, and most are over 40 years old.

“The city has less, I’m guessing, I don’t work for the city, they have less building infrastructure and less sort of maintenance and upgrades that are possible in terms of energy efficiency and those have really, really fast payback financially,” Predmore says. 

These efforts are paying off, Predmore says. IU’s energy use per square foot is around 18 percent less than it was in 2010.

“Those are things people may not notice," Predmore says. "They’re things like LED lighting, investing in building controls, even repairing steam tunnels that have leaks in them, things like that that are having a big impact on energy efficiency.”

In the last year, IU installed a new software called EnergyCAP, which monitors the energy performance of all of IU’s buildings.

It's purpose is to monitor buildings and find outliers for energy efficiency so that the university knows where to focus its energy first.

Predmore says another reason IU has a different strategy on solar installation involves tax credits.

“Residential solar, you can take advantage of that 30 percent federal tax credit and IU doesn’t pay taxes like that, so we’re not eligible for that,” he says.

Both Crowley and Predmore say the landscape of renewable energy is changing rapidly, and solar energy is becoming a more realistic prospect as time goes on.

Just last month, Duke Energy announced a program where it would lease solar panels out to an organization. Predmore says IU needs to consider programs like this.

“There’s a lot of change right now and a lot of new possibilities, and IU is committed to exploring those as the financial case looks better and better,” Predmore says.

They also agree that IU and Bloomington should partner on sustainability initiatives when possible.

Crowley says it’s important to have an ongoing dialogue between the university and city.

“If you’re talking about carbon emissions, it doesn’t stop at the gates of the university and it doesn’t stop at the city limits for that matter,” Crowley says.

While the university is making strides, Predmore acknowledges that for someone like McKinlay, who is concerned about climate change, progress might not be happening fast enough.

McKinlay says renewable energy should be made a priority right now, rather than waiting for when it is most economically beneficial.

"That’s not necessarily what I see as the end goal," McKinlay says. "I think even if you can alleviate the electricity cost of a single building, in my mind, that’s worth-while.”

He says solar panels are an improvement to structures that will eventually pay for themselves. 

Have a question? Ask City Limits:

Our community is changing, from closing businesses to traffic and road construction to affordable housing, and we see the impact of these changes all around us.

We want to know: What questions do you have about how the Bloomington of tomorrow will impact your work, your personal life, your community and your future?

Here’s how it works: You submit a question you’d like us to explore about how Bloomington has changed over the past few decades, what you want to see for the city in the future and how ties with IU continue to shape the community.  

So: What do you wonder about how Bloomington is changing and how it impacts your life?

Interested in an ongoing conversation how Bloomington is changing? Join our Facebook group!

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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