As environmental concerns force us to rethink how we power our urban centers, the massive losses sustained from sudden natural disasters expose the need for us to initiate change sooner rather than later. The future of our energy supply must face the dual challenges of sustainability and reliability.

These challenges are spurring new waves of funding for renewable energy options like ‘district energy systems’ and other types of microgrids. Examples of new ways to power university campuses are evident throughout the country, and education leaders are at the forefront of a sweeping trend to provide more efficient and clean energy solutions.

Since 2018, officials at Kent State University have been unfolding a $1 billion plan to transition to renewable energy in all measures of construction. Already, the university is operating natural-gas-fired combustion turbines which produce steam to heat and cool campus facilities. In preparation for the next phase of construction, Kent State officials plan to add solar photovoltaic arrays that will reduce the university’s overall carbon footprint by over 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

In May, it was announced that University of Michigan would fund a broad spectrum of energy efficiency measures to dramatically reduce its carbon emissions. The revenue budgeted in a revolving fund will have a five-year opening phase wherein $25 million is allocated to various construction projects. All new projects will be constructed according to new standards of environmental efficiency. The standards are designed to ensure that all new construction projects are compatible with campus heating and cooling systems that generate renewable energy.

Following the examples of university-based projects, local governments such as Sunnyvale, California, have proposed budgetary measures to fund multi-year projects to upgrade their renewable energy-based grid systems. Sunnyvale’s plan to draw heat and electrical power from combustible biogas will require long-term construction efforts, and a budget of $20.9 million is available for new construction projects between 2022 and 2028.

The outlook for alternative energy systems recently gained more traction as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced it would invest $61 million in 10 energy efficiency projects that support smart grid systems that will reduce carbon emissions.

Last month, the University of Washington became one of the constituent institutions of a public-private consortium focused on grid integration technology. The consortium, backed by $25 million in funding from the DOE, will develop partnerships among universities, national labs, equipment companies, utility providers, and power system operators to innovate and commercialize American solar-based technology. More specifically, the consortium will sponsor nine solar hardware and manufacturing projects with $14 million of the federal funding. The projects will all be designed to mitigate the costs of solar technology and allow the alternative energy generated to be integrated into the country’s power grid.

Officials from Ohio State University issued plans for a campus-wide energy system initiative in August. The impressive plan entails 40 projects of varying size and scope, but with the common goal of upgrading the campus’ energy efficiency. The work will target academic, administrative, medical, athletic, and residential facilities on campus. In total, officials have allocated $44 million to fund projects that were prioritized in an earlier energy audit. According to that review, the university will focus large portions of the funding on objectives with new construction and technology that provide for smart heating and cooling mechanisms.

Additionally, DOE has allocated another $6 million for a model-based academic study of an energy system capable of powering 18 buildings on an Atlanta-based campus. The funding reflects DOE-backed enthusiasm for the research and development of district energy systems. These types of highly visible initiatives, along with the funding, continue to popularize district energy systems as a sustainable, renewable energy source for commercialization.

The University of Pittsburgh also received funding to launch a study related to renewable energy systems. With $3 million from the DOE, the university will develop industry-based partnerships designed to help the agency deploy a standardized program for district energy systems in underserved rural communities. Once standards are set and models are developed, the DOE will provide financial support to clean energy efforts in the rest of the country. In particular, the study will focus on how optical fiber and passive wireless technology manufacturers can help measure cost efficiencies.

The Maryland Energy Administration recently awarded $650,000 to the University of Maryland’s Baltimore Medical Center. The funds were made available from the state’s Combined Heat and Power (CHP) Grant program. The funds will be used for installation of a 1,982-kilowatt (kW) CHP system, and the objective will be to ensure a renewable source of electricity and thermal energy that provides reliable and sustainable power so the hospital can operate under both normal and disrupted grid delivery conditions.

As renewable energy studies become even more sophisticated, funding will become more abundant. In October, the National Western Center in Denver received $644,000 for its own Energy Support initiative. The funding will be used to secure and install a district energy heating and cooling system that provides renewable power for the facility in the heart of Colorado’s most visited urban center.

The mounting enthusiasm for alternative power systems is more than obvious. And, as more buildings draw from their own renewable energy sources that deliver substantial savings, a greater number of universities, cities, and states will initiate similar projects. Public officials interested in alternative power projects may want to check out the federal government’s “Connected Communities” program. It appears likely that the DOE will continue to provide financial support for these types of projects.

Mary Scott Nabers

As President and CEO of Strategic Partnerships, Inc., Mary Scott Nabers has decades of experience working in the public-private sector. A well-recognized expert in the P3 and government contracting fields, she is often asked to share her industry insights with top publications and through professional speaking engagements.