America’s colleges and universities are leading the transition to a 100 percent renewable energy system. Small liberal arts colleges, large public universities and community colleges alike, from every corner of the U.S., are taking the lead in reducing energy consumption, deploying renewable energy technologies, and switching to electric vehicles.
The nation’s leading campuses for clean energy — from the University of Minnesota, Morris to Southwestern University in Texas — are setting a strong example for other colleges and the nation as a whole to follow. More than 40 colleges and universities now obtain 100 percent or more of their electricity from renewable energy sources. 1 And, of the 180 schools that have reported their renewable energy data to The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS), 91 percent are using some amount of renewable energy.
Campuses are also leading in cleaning up our transportation system. Each of the top 10 schools for electric vehicles (EVs) in this ranking have switched over 60 percent of their campus-owned vehicles to EVs. Of the 261 campuses reporting their campus fleet details to STARS, 88 percent have at least one EV.
Leading campuses are taking action on multiple fronts. The University of Missouri is among the leading schools for producing renewable electricity on-campus, purchasing electricity from off-campus renewable energy projects, and providing for other building energy needs — such as heating and hot water — with on-campus renewable energy sources. The University of Minnesota, Morris and Skidmore College in New York are leaders in two of these categories.
College campuses are ideal places to lead the renewable energy transition. Colleges are large energy users, and are uniquely suited to employ microgrids and district heating and cooling systems that expand the potential uses for renewable energy. 2 Schools that seize these opportunities draw the attention of potential students. A 2019 Princeton Review survey of nearly 12,000 college applicants found that 64 percent would factor in schools’ environmental commitments — including commitments to adopt renewable energy — when deciding where to attend. 3
America’s leading clean energy colleges and universities are setting a shining example for other schools to follow. Colleges and universities across the country should follow their lead by pledging to move toward 100 percent renewable energy.
Leading campuses are well on the way to 100 percent renewable energy.
The following campuses are realizing the promise of renewable energy — installing solar panels and wind turbines on campus and purchasing power from off-campus renewable energy sources.
Southwestern University in Texas is ranked first for renewable electricity use — the school purchases Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) from wind farms equivalent to 100 percent of its electricity consumption. 4
Some schools are utilizing renewable energy resources — including rooftop solar panels and wind turbines — on campus, to both meet their energy needs and provide students and faculty with valuable research opportunities.
The University of Minnesota (UMN), Morris leads in producing renewable electricity on its own campus. The university produces about 60 percent of its electricity needs with two commercial-scale wind turbines, and also powers one of its residence halls with a 20-kW solar PV installation. 5
Some schools are leading the renewable energy transition by purchasing their electricity from off-campus renewable energy projects — an important option for campuses without the space or resources to make on-campus renewable energy viable. The following schools are leading on that front.
The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., leads surveyed campuses nationwide for purchasing renewable electricity from off-campus projects. In conjunction with American University and the George Washington University Hospital, the university purchases electricity from large, off-campus solar arrays to cover 53 percent of its electricity consumption. 6
Leading campuses are not just cleaning up their electricity use — they are replacing all fossil fuel-powered systems, including for heating, cooling and hot water, with systems that run on electricity or renewable energy, such as solar thermal panels and geothermal heat pumps.
Colgate University is ranked first on this list for providing its non-electrical energy needs, including heating and hot water, with renewable energy sources. The school has multiple renewable energy systems, including solar thermal panels that heat water, and a geothermal system that draws from the earth’s stable temperature to provide heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. 7
Leading schools are switching their campus fleets to electric vehicles.
Leading campuses are not just cleaning up their buildings, but also their transportation systems by transitioning away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles and toward EVs.
The top school in this ranking, Ringling College of Art and Design, operates 41 campus-owned vehicles, 35 of which are powered entirely by electricity.
Leading schools are reducing energy consumption through energy efficiency and conservation.
Colleges and universities are reducing energy consumption on campus to make it easier to power themselves with 100 percent renewable energy. Leading campuses are cutting their energy consumption through various energy efficiency improvements, such as adopting central control facilities that manage heating, cooling and ventilation needs in real time to prevent waste. Schools are also cutting consumption through energy conservation programs, such as initiatives that encourage students and laboratory workers to close fume hoods, which provide necessary ventilation, but can leak large amounts of energy if left open.
Numerous schools have adopted ambitious renewable energy commitments for the future.
Harvard University is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050. 8 To achieve these goals, the campus has been dramatically reducing its energy consumption through efficiency upgrades and initiatives to encourage energy conservation habits. Thanks to these efforts, Harvard cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent between 2006 and 2016, even as its campus grew. 9
The University of Hawai’i (UH) is committed to produce as much renewable energy as its campuses use by 2035. 10 In 2019, UH Maui College is anticipated to become the first UH campus to generate 100 percent of its energy from on-campus renewable energy sources once its solar PV plus battery storage system is brought online. 11
The University of California system (UC) is committed to be carbon neutral — in both its buildings and campus fleets — by 2025. 12 One of the most impressive parts of UC’s commitment is its plan to convert its buildings to be “all-electric” for heating, cooling and other needs that are currently supplied by gas. 13
How colleges and universities can take the lead for renewable energy.
To follow in the footsteps of leading campuses, all colleges and universities should set a goal to obtain 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources — including for electricity, heating and other building energy needs, and campus-owned vehicles. To achieve this goal, schools should:
- Reduce energy consumption through energy efficiency improvements and energy conservation initiatives.
- Use renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, to supply 100 percent of their electricity.
- Transition all other building energy systems — including heating, hot water and cooling — to be electric or powered by renewable energy sources, such as solar hot water or ground-source heat pumps.
- Swap all fossil-fuel powered vehicles for EVs.
- Encourage and enable students and employees to commute to and from campus sustainably by walking, biking, taking transit or using electric vehicles.
- Purchase goods and services — such as food and travel — that minimize the use of fossil fuels.