One year ago, I sat in a meeting with graying Yale administrators, senior faculty, an environmental lawyer and a donor in blue jeans to discuss a model by which Yale could lead New England’s conversion to renewable energy.
Imagine if a donor approached Yale with 100 acres, offering its vast sunlit expanse to the University free of land tax, for renewable energy generation. Imagine, too, that the state’s central electricity power line ran through the property, minimizing the cost of connecting to the grid. Imagine if the project’s estimated capacity was between three and ninefold that of the West Campus solar installation lauded by the media one week ago.
Imagine if Yale could help power a small town.
That is Yale’s current position. The University could help generate clean energy for a small Connecticut town — at what I, and one of the country’s top solar provider, believe to be no net cost for Yale. Anything but simple indolence on its part could revolutionize the role of nongovernmental institutions in alleviating the national carbon reduction burden.
Of several viable models, one is this: the institution (Yale, hopefully) distributes its loan security onto a community with territory auspicious for solar or wind energy. Yale’s nearly indelible credit rating, superior to the governments of France, Belgium, Japan and even the U.S., according to Standard and Poor’s, lends both credibility and extremely low rates to its capital-building projects it underwrites. Yale need only indicate its interest in buying the credits of energy eventually generated, if the project is successful, therefore minimizing risk.
Still, a year later, the deal remains on the table and the University has not acted on this opportunity, while neglecting to examine many potentially similar opportunities.
The effect of a university underwriting renewable ventures has been powerful even for less loan-secure institutions: the University of Connecticut’s entrance into a similar renewable energy agreement near its Avery Point campus helped those at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection generate $3 million for the project’s creation.
This unnamed 100-acre solar farm could generate several megawatts of energy from the free source of the sun, creating a revenue stream for the community as the free energy flows to the grid year-round and is purchased by the state.
So why hasn’t Yale opted into this project or anything similar? Yale’s sustainability efforts are enervated by a Provost’s office that appears concerned more with image than with policies of gravity for the state and the broader nation. Even at that meeting one year ago, I heard the whispers: some in the Yale administration believed that the University had already hit is sustainability “quota.” Why overshadow the comparably miniscule investments in sustainability it had recently announced?
The significance of this demur does not rest in this one idea, per se. Rather, it exists in the fact that donors from all corners of the world seek to contribute to the coffers of Yale for an advancement of social good. Environmentally conscious alumni, for example, seek targeted donations to issues of sustainability that they feel passionate about, whether that means solar panels on their residential college or another favorite library — a donation option Yale could use to incentivize greater revenues.
This investment opportunity comes after the University pleaded its commitment to environmental preservation while rejecting students’ demands for divestment. Their justification was on the controversial but understandable grounds that divestment could reduce the University’s endowment returns, reducing money for any number of socially beneficial expenditures like scholarships, research grants and community outreach. In this case, the University can claim no such excuse.
The ball is in our court. Top minds have delineated the path to decarbonize without a negative statement in Yale’s checkbook.
Few have the means to advance renewable energy at this scale. Yale has the opportunity to lead.
As Nike, Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Starbucks, Johnson & Johnson and the entire state of Washington pledge toward using 100-percent renewable energy, the idea that Yale’s needs are somehow greater or that its leaders are somehow less capable of this vision is absurd. Since Connecticut has the most expensive conventional energy in the continental United States, Yale has a financial opportunity unparalleled by its peer institutions in more fossil fuel-rich states.
Yale should have the same resilience as its students to react to an ever-changing climate, if not a bulldog’s boldness to place its nose in the bushes of opportunity. And with a Hundred Acre Woode awaiting, there are many, many bushes to explore.
James Barile is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .