UCF sustainability goals drive campus toward carbon neutrality

Solar panels border the south end of Garage B. With more than 400 panels, this installation is helping UCF begin the shift to carbon neutrality. Photo by Tommy Cardinal.

It’s been 10 years since UCF President John C. Hitt pledged to make UCF carbon neutral by 2050, according to UCF’s Climate Action Plan.

That means the campus must emit a net of zero carbon emissions into the atmosphere, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s website.

Right now, a total of 448 solar panels sit beside Garage B on UCF’s main campus, a single step in an extensive plan for sustainability.

The steps to reaching this goal are laid out in UCF’s Climate Action Plan, which outlines intermittent goals and timelines to becoming carbon neutral in almost 30 years.

However, another deadline is fast approaching. 

One of UCF’s first goals is to increase renewable energy use to 15 percent by 2020, according to UCF’s Climate Action Plan

One way the university is implementing its plan to become carbon neutral is with renewable energy, which is any energy source that does not run out, according to the Energy Information Administration’s website

But why start with a parking garage?

“It has to have southern exposure,” Assistant Vice President of Sustainability Initiatives David Norvell said. “That’s why we chose that location … it had a big chunk of land that faces south.”

Duke Energy, an electric company that powers UCF, sponsored the project with a $750,000 grant that paid for the panel installation and hardware, Norvell said.

The solar panels outside of Garage B sit beside a sign that thanks Duke Energy, which funded most of the project. Photo by Tommy Cardinal.

The short-term 2020 goal is becoming more realistic as the price of solar energy installations decreases considerably over time, Norvell said.

When the panels outside of Garage B were installed in 2012, it cost $6 per watt for complete installation, Norvell said. It now costs about $1 per watt, he said.

The decrease in cost allowed UCF to begin planning the construction of a much larger project. 

“It would be 100 times larger than what’s outside parking garage B,” Norvell said. “There’s a big plot of land out there that we’re looking to develop into solar.”

UCF is looking into adding more solar panels on campus, which will help the university reach its 2050 and 2020 goal. Land would be cleared on the southeast corner of campus near the water tower, Coordinator of Sustainability Initiatives Yara Watson Colon said.

Although there are other locations available to install solar panels, the southeast location is the most cost-efficient due to the pricing of rooftop installations, she said.

“We don’t see any short-term alternative uses for that land,” Watson said. “We did discuss whether or not removing a green site — removing trees — was needed. The rationale for clearing those areas was the pricing of rooftop solar installations.”

Although the exact number of panels and amount of power produced from the new field is yet to be determined, Norvell said the field will definitely put UCF past its goal of 15 percent renewable energy by 2020. 

However, this all depends on whether the project is approved by the Board of Trustees, also known as BOT.

The solar panel installation was not discussed during the BOT’s last meeting on Oct. 26. The next BOT meeting is scheduled for Jan. 18, and it’s unknown whether the solar panel project will be on the agenda, Rachel Williams, the communication coordinator for UCF News and Information, said.

Students cross Gemini Boulevard coming and going from the Recreation and Wellness Center. This location was also chosen because of high visibility due to student traffic. Photo by Tommy Cardinal.

The panels don’t eliminate the need for outside power as the garage is still connected to the electric grid, but there are times when excess energy from the panels is utilized in other ways.

“There is a point in the middle of the day when there’s peak solar going on, when a lot of the lights are turned off in the garage because there’s so much light going in,” Norvell said.  “And so that energy goes out of the garage and goes to neighboring buildings.”

Solar-powered Garage B uses half the amount of energy as Garage D, which is the exact same size but without solar panels, according to the Open Energy Information System, which tracks the energy use of all buildings on UCF’s campus. 

The power saved by Garage B alone in one year is equivalent to powering Spectrum Stadium for 254 night games, according to the Open Energy Information System.

In addition to reducing energy use, the sustainability department is aiming to reduce waste, Norvell said.

In an effort to reduce and reuse waste, UCF installed “EZH20” water fountains with a sensor that dispenses water in a smooth stream from above when a bottle is placed below and is meant to discourage students from buying plastic water bottles. More than 185,000 bottles have been filled in the first four floors of the library alone, according to the “Bottles Saved” counters on the fountains.

“We want to limit the amount of plastic bottles on campus by trying to use refillable solutions like that,” Norvell said.

An “EZH20” water fountain refills a water bottle on the second floor of the John C. Hitt Library. Photo by Tommy Cardinal.

UCF student Brian Bak, 22, said he thinks the fountain’s mission is working. He uses the water fountains in the library to refill his reusable water bottle and has noticed other students following suit, he said.

“It reduces plastic waste, increases access to clean water and it’s a good option for students,” Watson said.

The fountains are scattered throughout campus in buildings such as the John C. Hitt Library, Student Union, Technology Commons and Millican Hall.

“I’ve actually seen a lot more people buying reusable bottles since they’ve installed more refillable water bottle stations,” Bak, a mechanical engineering student, said. “I use them for the environmental aspect and the convenience.”

These small steps have helped UCF move toward carbon neutrality. Solar panel projects help reduce emissions and energy use, and refilling water bottles at eco-friendly water fountains helps to reduce waste.

These and other initiatives, including electric car charging stations, a switch to electric golf carts and sustainable construction practices — construction at UCF must meet a standard of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold, which is the second-highest grade in a tier that judges buildings on their energy efficiency, waste levels and water usage — have put UCF on the track to carbon neutrality. 

“I think we’re well ahead of the pack in terms of efficiency,” Watson said.