Catholic University of America debuts 25-acre solar array, one of the largest in region

CUA solar The Catholic University of America President Peter Kilpatrick (next to mascot) with Standard Solar, university, and government leaders on June 3, 2024. | Credit: Courtesy of the Catholic University of America

The Catholic University of America (CUA) debuted its 25-acre solar array on Monday, June 3 — one of the largest solar farms in the region —  in the spirit of Pope Francis’ environmental efforts envisioned in the papal encyclical Laudato Si'.

“You have to actually do things to demonstrate your commitment [to the environment],” Robert Specter, executive vice president and treasurer of CUA, told CNA at the university’s dedication ceremony. 

Specter emphasized the need for “demonstrable evidence” of putting the principles of Laudato Si' into practice. The 2015 encyclical focused on human ecology and the pontiff’s vision for a solution to environmental concerns such as climate change.

The 42 rows of nearly 15,000 solar panels, located on the grounds of the university’s West Campus, will provide six megawatts-AC of energy to the campus, local businesses, and the nearby community in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The size is equal to approximately 19 football fields, according to Specter.

It is projected to save more than 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year, which is equivalent to removing 1,547 cars from the road annually or eliminating the carbon dioxide emissions from more than 800,000 gallons of gasoline, according to the university.

According to CUA, the solar farm is now the region’s “largest urban ground-mounted solar array, underscoring our commitment to innovative and sustainable energy solutions.” The university is leasing the land to Standard Solar (owned by Brookfield Renewable Partners), which owns and operates the panels and pays rent to CUA.

The project incurred about $1.6 million in initial costs for the university (nearly one-third of which was covered by tax incentives). Standard Solar also benefits from the Solar Investment Tax Credit, and those who receive energy produced from the solar panels are eligible for credits, which reduces the cost of their energy bills.

Over the next two decades, the university estimates that those receiving energy from solar panels will save about $3.5 million in total.

Scott Wiater, the president and CEO of Standard Solar, told CNA the project is “unique” due to its urban location, noting that most large solar farms are built in rural areas. Having a solar farm so close to a large population, he added, reduces the utility costs normally required to transport the energy to its users.

Peter Kilpatrick, the president of CUA, said during the dedication ceremony that the debut of the solar array was “a significant milestone.” He praised “the high value of collaboration” between the government of the District of Columbia, the solar company, and the university, saying it shows a “shared vision for a cleaner, more sustainable future.”

Washington, D.C., intends to be carbon-neutral by 2025, meaning that the district would cut greenhouse gas emissions to a net zero on the environment. President Joe Biden’s administration intends to have a net-zero carbon emission economy by 2050 for the entire country.

Kilpatrick said the large solar initiative taken by the university “mirrors the ambitious targets set forward by the District.”

During the ceremony, Steve Farole, the president of the Brookland Neighborhood Civic Association, praised CUA for its “proud tradition of environmental stewardship” and sharing the benefits “with the residents of the city.” 

Specter told CNA that the university has also worked with a local beekeeping group to add pollinator habitats under the solar panels and construct bee houses nearby. He noted that the university also provides low-wattage lamps and is working to reduce water waste, which are some of the other environmental initiatives at the university.

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