COLUMN: Students research ways to find helpful local renewable energy sources

Dr. William Forbes, Associate Professor of Geography and Sustainable Community Development.

SFA students in a sustainability class recently explored local options for renewable energy in partnership with a new local citizens group Renewable Energy Nacogdoches. This past spring Natasha Johnson, sustainable community development major, and Taryn Lenert, sociology major, helped the Brown Family Health Center and HOPE, a local food bank, explore options for solar panels. If implemented, these ideas could save the institutions hundreds of thousands of dollars over a 30-year period.

A big hurdle is how to cover the up-front costs of the panels, which can run up to $70,000 for a larger installation. Such costs can be offset through incentives offered by the utility provider, or Oncor, Inc. in this case. Another funding source is the Sun Club, a non-profit funded by donations from customers of the Green Mountain Energy Company. Natasha and Taryn helped research this grant program and get three certified solar installation companies to bid for the work as part of the Brown Family Health Center’s application process. Although their application was not successful, they will apply for the grant again next year. Also through the initiative, the Health Center did receive some solar panels for their community garden area, which was donated by a new firm in town, Solaro.

An alternative the students also researched is the Texas PACE program, which offers financial incentives for energy conservation retrofitting in commercial, multi-family residential and non-profit organization buildings. Cities or counties must adopt the programs, but there is little to no cost or staff time involved. Citing success stories in other cities such as Amarillo, the students presented a slide show on this opportunity to city staff. Such programs present “win-win” scenarios for the environment and economy, through which building owners can both reduce energy usage and save considerable sums of money over the long term.

SFA is an example, using the consultant Siemens Corporation to retrofit campus buildings in stages, reducing energy bills from approximately $11 million to $7 million per year. Similar savings occurred by retrofitting the famous Empire State Building in New York City. Our State Energy Conservation Office offers yet another incentive program, LoanSTAR (Saving Taxes And Resources). This was designed for public buildings owned by cities, school districts, universities and more. Borrowers receive low-interest loans to help pay for energy-related retrofits of facilities. Applicants repay the loans from energy cost savings realized by the projects. The program is a revolving loan program replenished by borrowers rather than new taxes.

Renewable Energy Nacogdoches, which promotes local projects that increase community energy independence, economic resilience and sustainability, served as a facilitator and guide for the collaborative effort through several meetings and coordination. The group is open to anyone interested in local renewable energy.

For more information on the citizens group, contact Resilient Nacogdoches (resilient.nac@gmail.com). SFA’s sustainability class (SUS 350 Sustainable Community Assessment) is part of a major, minor or four-course certificate program in sustainable community development. Hands-on field experience is included to complement online coursework in all courses. SUS 300 is available this spring, where students will look to publish writings about their projects in an online journal.

For more information on the degrees or courses, contact me at forbesw@sfasu.edu.

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