Rooftop solar: An evolution, not revolution

Solar umbrellas

Solar panels affixed to the tops of patio umbrellas.

The spread of solar panel technology across the globe was not as immediate as many people predicted in the early 21st century. Many years have passed since the first wave of ‘green fever’ came over the United States and solar power companies embarked on a journey that was incredibly challenging – and for many, impossible.

More than 40 solar manufacturers went out of business or filed for bankruptcy in 2012 alone, according to Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One. The task of providing solar power to consumers is daunting – yet over the past few years, solar panels have become a more common sight. Each year, rooftop solar panels are added to more buildings on UNC’s campus. Although the switch to solar power has not been instantaneous, use of solar power has evolved over time and indicates a more sustainable future for global energy.

UNC’s sustainability initiatives – including renewable energy projects, water conservation and sustainable programs supported by Carolina Dining Services – earned the university top marks in the Sierra Club’s 2015 “Cool Schools” ranking.

Two significant projects were implemented on UNC’s campus during the summer of 2015: the additions of solar panels to the roof of the Carolina Union and on the tops of patio umbrellas outside of the Union. The rooftop solar panels will reduce energy costs for the Union, while the solar umbrellas provide an outdoor charging station for electronic devices. These additions were spearheaded by the UNC Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee (or RESPC).

Students use solar powered charging stations on campus.

Students use solar powered charging stations on campus.

Since 2004, RESPC has worked on numerous energy projects across campus, including the installation of LED light systems in over 16 buildings and the installation of rooftop solar panels on Morrison residence hall. These projects indicate the evolutionary pace of our conversion to solar energy. The investment of financial resources in solar energy occurs gradually and has long term benefits for the environment.

Charlie Egan (BSBA ’16), a member of RESPC, helped bring these projects to fruition. He’s proud of the projects because “they illustrate students’ efforts in executing impactful and visible projects on campus by collaborating with multiple groups and organizations towards a common goal: to increase UNC’s sustainability efforts and focus on energy education.”

The gradual addition of rooftop solar to buildings around the world illustrates that our conversion to solar power will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. It also shows that alternative energy sources are desirable for major institutions, as well as residential consumers. ‘Green fever’ isn’t going anywhere, especially as it becomes clearer that clean technology leads to fiscal and environmental cost savings.

By Abigail Barnhill (BSBA ’16)