Episode 14: Solar Carport and Energy Transition at Michigan State University - Transcript

Back to Episode 14

Dave Karlsgodt 0:00

Welcome to the Campus Energy and Sustainability Podcast. In each episode, we'll talk with leading campus professionals, thought leaders, engineers, and innovators addressing the unique challenges and opportunities facing higher ed and corporate campuses. Our discussions will range from energy conservation and efficiency to planning and finance, from building science to social science, from energy systems to food systems. We hope you're ready to learn, share, and ultimately accelerate your institution towards solutions. I'm your host, Dave Karlsgodt. I'm a principal at Fovea, an energy, carbon, and business planning firm. In this episode, you'll hear my interview with Wolfgang Bauer, University Distinguished Professor and Associate Vice President of Administrative Services at Michigan State University. Also joining us was Gary Farha, President and Co-Founder of Customer First Renewables. The focus of our conversation was a large onsite solar carport installation that recently came online at Michigan State's campus. At the time this project came online, this was the last solar carport installation in the United States. As background, Wolfgang shares the rich history of the Michigan State energy system dating back to the 19th century, we discussed the role of Michigan State's energy transition plan as a catalyst for this project. The plan lays out aggressive goals for the use of renewable energy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. We talked through the decision making processes that led up to this project and end by discussing possible next steps as Michigan State continues their energy transition. I hope you enjoy this August 16 interview with Wolfgang Bauer and Gary Farha. Well, Wolfgang and Gary, it's really great to have you on the podcast today.

Wolfgang Bauer 1:41

Great to be with you, David.

Gary Farha 1:43

Hi, Dave. Great to be here.

Dave Karlsgodt 1:45

Great. Well, I'm excited to have you both. And I have a lot of questions for both of you. And at least in theory, I'd like to talk through Michigan State's recent addition of the solar carport and that project. But I'd like to take a couple steps back first and kind of get to how this project came about and some of the framework that Michigan State was using that even led to taking on such an ambitious project. And then we'll see where things go from there. Does that sound good?

Wolfgang Bauer 2:12

Sounds great.

Gary Farha 2:13


Dave Karlsgodt 2:13

Alright, so let's just start here with maybe Wolfgang you can start us off, give us a little introduction about who you are in your role. And then we'll get into some more of the specific questions.

Wolfgang Bauer 2:25

My name is Wolfgang Bauer. I have been working at Michigan State University for pretty close to 30 years now. And for the first 25 years, I had an academic career as a physics professor. And then I decided to join what we call the dark side of the administration to try to push our operation to be more greener and more friendly to the planet, while at the same time saving money. That's important to me. So right now I'm serving as Associate Vice President for Administrative Services, where my responsibilities include the energy portfolio and mobility issues and so on.

Dave Karlsgodt 3:11

Great, Gary, you want to give us a little introduction?

Gary Farha 3:14

Sure. This is Gary Farha. I'm President and Founder of Customer First Renewables, personally have a very long background in the energy industry, both working in the industry and as a management consultant, spanning a period of about the last 30 years or so. Customer First Renewables, the company I now lead is in its ninth year of operation. We're headquartered in the Washington, DC area. And our role is as a renewable energy advisor, where we give advice to large users of electricity who are interested in getting access to more renewables in a cost effective way that meets their needs.

Dave Karlsgodt 4:01

Great. Let's back up a second then and Michigan State had adopted an energy transition plan back in 2009. And within that plan, there were some ambitious targets set both for renewable energy but also for greenhouse gas reductions. And I'll definitely link to some of the plans. I know there was also an update in 2012 and then it looks like another update in 2017 that I'll put on the podcast notes. But in any case, it looks like in 2015, the renewable energy percentage was 15% was the target and then going out to 2030 being at 40%. And maybe Wolfgang that's been updated more recently. It sounds like there may even be 100% renewable energy goal way out in the future at this point. But if you can just maybe give us a little more background on how this plan or how these plans and the updates have weighed into looking at this project, maybe that background will be helpful as context.

Wolfgang Bauer 5:00

So if I can go back to 2010, in 2010, a few of us from the academic side, I was the department chair for the Physics Astronomy Department and other department chairs and Dean's got together with administrators and students and staff members in our infrastructure planning and facility division to shape an energy transition plan that would get us from our then current state to eventually 100% renewable energy. We worked for a year and a half and submitted our final plan in January 2012. It was adopted by our Board of Trustees, the governing body, in April 2012. And that plan contained the roadmap of the general goals, but not the particular projects. The first project that we undertook was to build an anaerobic digester for food waste and animal excrements and all kinds of organic matter to convert them into, well, biogas that could be used for electricity production. And then as a side product, organic fertilizer that is the outcast, end-product of an anaerobic digester. So that project was completed in September 2013. And then we aim for a bigger project, one that would sort of have a single function. We're one of the top 100 universities in the world. And so our position always needs to be leading or not being part of it. And so if you don't want to have a big impact, then don't play the game. For a while we looked at building something ourselves and talking with vendors. And we decided, you know, we don't have enough market clout and we don't have enough experience in the renewable sector. We need to actually find an integrator and help us run the competition. So we ran a competition for the business that will run the competition for us. And Customer First Renewables came away the winner in that competition and from then on, we worked side by side from September, early September 2014 on, to shape the vision of what these renewable energy projects should be. And, you know, we envisioned we could have hydro, wind, bio, solar, all of these were invited. And Customer First Renewables helped us sort of set the parameters of this competition. And so I'm going to step aside here and let Gary take over the narrative from then on.

Dave Karlsgodt 8:16

Go ahead, Gary, I'd like to hear your version of the story or, you know, what did you see when you stepped in?

Gary Farha 8:22

Yep. So just as additional context, building off what Wolfgang just said, and and Wolfgang's a very humble person. So he he left out some important details, which is that Michigan State, his university, is probably one of the most sophisticated not only users, but also producers of electricity of any major U.S. American university across the country. They've actually been in the energy business for a long, long time dating back to the, you know, early to mid 1900s. They, like many other large campuses, decided that they needed to take matters in their own hand around their power source and so they started generating power on campus using a generating station that that burnt fuel, historically coal, more recently natural gas, but that really was able to support not only the electricity needs, but also the steam thermal needs for the campus. And so they had a very able and large team focus just on operating these utilities for the campus, that of course, are active in the market and, and wanted, of course, to be challenged to think more broadly about how do they transition from being a large generator of power with traditional fossil fuels to move towards 100% renewables. That's quite a goal they set for themselves and one that they continue to get after to this day. With that backdrop, we first started getting to know the university in the 2011 timeframe. And at that time, they were just trying to get a little bit more familiar with different options in the market. They relied on some other outside folks as well to help educate the university on different kinds of technologies, what their cost structure would look like, and what their relevance might, might be to Michigan State, either on campus or off campus. And in the early days, even started, as Wolfgang mentioned, started really thinking about what could be hosted on campus and actually erected a wind tower to start measuring wind speed on campus with a thought that it would help inform a decision around whether wind turbines on campus or near campus might, might make sense for them. Michigan State also is blessed with a big footprint. They were the first land grant university in the country. The result: they have a larger campus than average. And those effectively real estate resources, gave them an opportunity to think more broadly around what they could do on campus, as well as, of course, what they could also do off campus for large solutions that might be connected to the transmission power grid in the region and could supply them power through the grid. So as Wolfgang mentioned, they decided, after announcing the 100% renewable energy goal as part of their transition plan in early 2012, to get a process going and that's when we were brought in to help support that. We actually, after thinking through all the options, Michigan State decided to cast the net very wide in terms of kinds of solutions they might be interested in to really get a good sense for market opportunities, both for solutions that can be on campus. So that included both on campus solar, as well as on campus wind, but then also off campus solutions that would be located on the regional grid and could supply them through the grid as well. And that process, which ended up producing over 100 different variations and different kinds of both on and off campus projects that that really provided the foundation for then going through a pretty intense and analytical effort to figure out what made the most sense for them, both in terms of economics, as well as other things that are important to them like managing their future power risk, of course, dressing their and helping to mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions. And from purchased engine generating electricity, as well as other benefits that would radiate out from folks on campus, faculty, students and others, saying Michigan State putting a very big foot into the game.

Dave Karlsgodt 13:05

Okay, so let me back you up there just for a second and make sure our listeners are clear on what happened then. So Michigan State set these goals and then did an open RFP, which you, Customer First Renewables, won to even look at what projects were available and then just solicit projects from the external world. You don't build the projects, correct? You bring people in? And when you said 100 projects, was that 100 different potential projects from developers? Or was that just potential projects that you as a team came up with as ideas?

Gary Farha 13:36

Yes. So thanks for the clarification, Dave. So we are an advisor, which means that we don't, by design, take any interest in any project. We want to be objective, transparent, and always sit on the client's side of the table. Which, as I mentioned earlier, is is large end users of electricity. So we serve universities, we serve corporations, we serve the government. And the common thread is that they're all organizations who want to do a lot more with renewable energy. The competitive process, after we were selected, that we ran on MSU's behalf was an RFP that went out to project developers. So these weren't hypothetical projects. These were real projects that may have already been under early stage development off campus, ones that are located on the grid. But then also developers were had already reviewed the campus, knew, specifically, the locations that what we were thinking about in the case of solar for both ground mount solar as well as solar panels on top of a carport structure. And so those different variations helped produce several different bids from developers who were interested in working with MSU and in creating a project.

Dave Karlsgodt 15:00

Great and Wolfgang, maybe you can give a little more background from your perspective on on how this process went. So you brought in Customer First and what did it look like from your side of the table?

Wolfgang Bauer 15:10

Well, Customer First helped us run the competition. As Gary said, there were over 100 different submitted proposals. And now you have to sort through which one makes the most economic sense for us. And it's not necessarily the one that has the lowest cost per kilowatt hour, but the one that has the combined lowest cost of electricity, plus largest greenhouse gas emissions savings, plus other benefits. For example, the least land use. And so we looked at, after Customer First pre-sorted the proposals and eliminated the ones that were deemed really impossible for us to pursue, we looked at all these on campus and off campus options. Michigan, has limited retail access to the grid, so we couldn't really utilize all of the proposals for direct energy generation, some of them were just for hedging purposes and we decided to eliminate these. Because, frankly, we also wanted on campus a showcase project that signals to our students and alumni and other stakeholders that we're committed to this transition to green power. And then now the question is, do you do wind or solar, which were the two favorites? We have a river running through campus, but its power yield would've been just too low for this purpose. Wind and solar have different timing characteristics, when they deliver most. And we decided, in the end, that solar was better for us for peak shaving purposes, even though it was not not the lowest case solution. And then, if you go further down the decision tree, we could have had ground mount or carport solutions. And, again, ground mount turns out to deliver cheaper electricity, but at the cost of, for us at least, valuable farmland that we didn't want to give up when we have, you know, many 10s of acres of parking lots that we could utilize for this. And so after all these considerations, we went with a carport solution, solar carport solution. And then Customer First provided maybe their most valuable contribution to us in really stepping in for us and negotiating with the vendor the best possible terms.

Dave Karlsgodt 18:05

Thanks for that context. One thing I should have caveated up front is that I cut my teeth on doing energy analysis at Michigan State's campus when I first moved from the software world to to this space. And it is, as Gary mentioned, have an amazing campus with you know, the huge onsite generation. Some of the other factors that really surprised me, I know you had just recently completed or are in the process of completing the FRIB, which is a particle accelerator on campus. So not only do you guys have, you know, a major university, but you also have some of these other you have some other unique loads for a university campus. But what was interesting to me also is I remember in the early days when we were doing a lot of forward-looking analysis and we were looking at things like wind and and some other things. And when I first started, it was all about "Okay, yes, we can do renewables, but we have to back them up or firm them up." So for any wind solar that we had to add there, there had to be some sort of backup, either by making sure that the thermal planet was ready to back them up or other things. But that thinking seems to really have changed since you know, that 2010-11 timeframe when I was looking at some of these things. So maybe and maybe Gary, you can give some more background on what's changed in the renewable space that made this project go from it was really pie in the sky when we were looking at it early on to something that's actually in the ground today and sounds like it's delivering some good benefits.

Gary Farha 19:31

Well, I think you're talking to him. And that's Wolfgang, right? He not only helped create the plan about making the commitment, but then actually personally got committed and took the personal risk to, you know, make make it happen.

Dave Karlsgodt 19:47

Alright, well, fair enough. It sounds like we're talking to the right guy, then. Well, so Wolfgang, I'd like to get into the details of this project. But you know, as Gary alluded to a second ago, there's quite a history at Michigan State of power production. So maybe Wolfgang can can us give us the long arc of how that's developed over time? Why does Michigan State have its own power plant? And from what I understand, can Island still can run on its own without...even if the power goes out around it? Maybe give us a little history on that.

Wolfgang Bauer 20:15

Yes, that's correct. So we were founded in 1855. And, at the time, there was no electricity on campus or in the surrounding area. And the only reason that we used any kind of fuel was to heat the buildings. There was a big problem that several buildings went up in fire from wood burning processes. And we decided to have a central boilerhouse in 1882. And then in 1894, we built the first power plant, partial electrification of campus, all on the basis of wood burning. This was the start of our micro grids, so we've been happily micro-gridding since 1894. We build a second power plant in 1904 because the railroads for was completed into campus and we could deliver coal. Ever since then, since 1904, we've been coal-firing, pretty much exclusively, and supplying all of the electricity and heating needs with coal. In 1965, we built the then state-of-the-art plant, that that is a co-gen plant that still works today. We're heating water to 900 psi, steam and run that steam over steam turbines, make electricity and then use 100 psi steam to heat the buildings everywhere on campus. We have over 20 miles of steam tunnels under campus and we distribute the heat through these steam tunnels. As you know, coal is much more polluting than natural gas among the fossil fuels. So a few years ago, we decided we have to step out of coal and convert completely to natural gas. That was several major infrastructure projects that we had to complete for this. But in March 2016, we burned our last quantity of coal. And since then, we've only been on natural gas. The natural gas enables us to be more nimble and to backup renewables with the inherent intermittency much more efficiently than we've been able to do this before. And so that's sort of a quick history of power production. We can run in an island mode. We have 100 megawatt grid connection that completely backs up our 100 megawatt power plant. But a decade ago or so there was this big black out in the north east. And one of the very, very few spots in the northeast that stayed lit and with a supply of electricity was actually Michigan State University. So we have proven that we can run in an island mode, and integrating renewables, we did not want to and do not want to give up this advantage.

Dave Karlsgodt 23:24

All right, thanks for that history. Let's get into the specifics of this project, then and how does that then fit into your your overall energy system? So from what I understand, this is an 11 megawatt DC capacity?

Wolfgang Bauer 23:38

Yeah, so the DC capacity is 13.4 megawatt. We're using 40,000 individual solar panels, each of them just the hair above 300 watt peak power. And so the DC capacity of the entire array is 13.4 megawatt. After you run it through the inverter, you come up with 10 and a half and even up to 11 megawatt AC power that we have definitely reached in the last six months of operation that I have data for. And the array has produced roughly 18% of the peak power that's used on campus. So when we use most of the power is during the hottest day in the summer, when we have the largest air conditioning load. And exactly then is when the solar array produces its biggest output. So it's ideally suited for our peak shaving needs. And it is actually a power source that does not go away completely. So it's very reliable, as opposed to our boilers. When a boiler springs a leak, it has to be taken offline. The sun always shines every day. There may be clouds, it may reduce to 30% of the peak output, but we always have something that we can restart the rest of our equipment off.

Dave Karlsgodt 25:17

Got it, yeah. So this concept of renewables not being reliable or requiring backup, in this case you've actually flipped it around. And this is, I mean, this is the reliable piece rather than the traditional equipment.

Wolfgang Bauer 25:30

That's correct. So the array spans five parking lots. 45 acres of area is under the roof of these carports. The total number of parking spaces is right around 5,000. Now we've put a little extra money into the carport solution because we wanted the lowest part of the carport roofs to be 14 foot 6 inches off the ground. And that's unnecessary for all but the highest vehicles. The reason we picked 14 foot 6 is that this guarantees that any vehicle that can come to campus and can pass under freeway bridges will also be able to pass under these carports without scraping the roof of the vehicle and the carports. This is important for us on football Saturdays, when people come in with big recreational vehicles with maybe TV antennas on the top. And we didn't want to resolve that in in any damage. Plus, in the winter, we have snow removal equipment that needs to go under these car ports. And we didn't want any damage from that either.

Dave Karlsgodt 26:46

Now that's, that is a very Michigan State sort of thing to do. So I have a couple of follow-ups there. One is how has snow removal been an issue? I mean, I presume you get snow on the solar panels as well. How does that work?

Wolfgang Bauer 26:58

Well, we've had a couple weeks where we had snowfall, and then the snow just stays on the carports. And basically, the production goes down to zero. So we're debating, presently, how to mitigate this the best. My solution that hopefully will be adopted will be construct a giant, like a leaf blower, but for the snow, mounted on top of a truck can go along the panels and just blow the snow off as it as it falls. But other engineering solutions are also under consideration. For example, putting heating filaments sort of like on the back window of your car that make the snow slide off. So we haven't decided this yet. For now, we just let the snow there and it slowly melts away over the span of a week.

Dave Karlsgodt 27:52

Yeah, it's fascinating to hear how you're overcoming some of those issues. But you know, coming back to, in light of my earlier question, it sounds like in this case, you found a really great way to bring on board your football fans and folks coming to the game with their big RVs. But what other de-risking activities did you go through to get to the point where you could put this project in place? And and maybe Gary, you can speak to some of these? I'm sure many of them were in more in the financial realm. Like what did that process look like, of going from, you know, here's this idea of putting solar panels all over the parking lots of Michigan State to actually getting the project approved?

Gary Farha 28:30

Well, we we've touched on this earlier, Dave, and Wolfgang certainly spoke to it as well. And that is that ultimately, these decisions at Michigan State and at other campuses and corporations and other end users, the the big driver tends to be the economics of the solution. So in other words, if it doesn't make economic sense to, to go with a solution like this relative to the next best option alternative, which in Michigan State's case was either generating power on campus, or buying power off the grid from the utility. This solution had to compete head-to-head in an economic way on a cost per kilowatt hour, you know, the unit of electricity, that that made sense in the short term and and over time. So there was a lot of economic analysis that had to be done. Some of your listeners may wonder how on earth in the state of Michigan where it's not like Arizona or Florida, the sun is not shining all the time. Can, can these solutions even be economic? And I would say, you know, 8-10 years ago, the answer would have been no. What's happened though, over the last nine years or so, is that the cost of electricity from both large scale solar solutions, as well as small scale ones that would go on your roof of your home or a building, have come down dramatically. Just to give you a feel for it, over the last nine years, so since 2009 through 2017, the cost of solar solutions, all-in cost, has decreased by 71%. Which is an amazing improvement. If you look at large scale wind solutions, so big wind turbines out in big fields, the cost of electricity from them has decreased by 47% over the same timeframe. The reason those those cost efficiencies have been gained and why it makes these kinds of solutions so much more appealing now to organizations that use economics as the litmus test for whether it makes sense, yeah, is the learning curve, you know, the explosion of end users getting into the game and really driving down over time through, you know, a typical learning curve, the cost of solutions. The technology is getting better. The panels, in the case of solar, are becoming more efficient. The carport or racking system that they're built upon also keep looking for engineering improvements out of it. The ongoing maintenance for it, whether it's other equipment like inverters, Wolfgang mentioned, or wiring, or other things have all been reviewed closely with an eye towards making cost improvements. And, as a result of that, as well as for solar in particular, huge reductions in the cost of the panel's themselves which over that same time frame, the last nine years or so, have gone down by over 90% has really fundamentally changed the economics of renewables. As a result of this, if you strip out all financial incentives, whether it's from the federal government or state/local government, that has been encouraging the adoption of renewables over the last, you know, 10-15 years, you strip out all those incentives, as well as all incentives for other kinds of more traditional generation sources, whether it be coal or gas or, or nuclear, large scale wind and solar is now the cheapest, all-in cost of electricity in many parts of the country, relative to any other option, including natural gas fired generation. That's, I think, remarkable to many people, particularly when you, when you recognize that's without any tax incentives at all. In a state like Michigan that's not as sunny, the numbers without incentives don't look quite as good as they might in Arizona or Florida or other places where the sun shines a lot more. But with those incentives, it certainly can bring down the economic cost to the customer. And therefore, that's what's driving the the uptake and the explosion of demand driven by customers in the US for for renewables. Just another interesting statistic: in the last two years, customers, as opposed to utilities, have actually driven more new generation of renewables in this country. It's now a customer driven game to a larger degree than a utility driven game, which is also something that's changed dramatically over the last 6 to 10 years. So these cost improvements have made renewables much more attractive. When you couple that with a sophisticated user who controls their own micro grid, has their own source of energy, knows on a hour by hour basis what's happening in power markets, like Michigan State does, and can integrate it all together in a way that's optimizing for lowest cost, it leads to a very positive outcome for the customer.

Wolfgang Bauer 34:13

If I can just make a small addition to this, there's one more branching point in the decision tree that one needs to take into account. And that is, should I own the generation equipment myself? Should I self-finance it? Or should I let somebody else come in and do this and then sign a power purchase agreement. And with the overall investment on the order of 20-25 million, we decided that we really would rather spend this money on a new academic building than on erecting power generation equipment that we own. And so we decided, with Customer First's help, that we would let somebody else own this facility and sign a 25 year power purchase agreement that guarantees us a fixed price. So it made our renewable energy pricing very, very predictable for us. And we were able to calculate that, over the duration of that 25 year power purchase equipment agreement, we would save just about $10 million in electricity costs relative to the brown power that we could buy off the grid.

Dave Karlsgodt 35:39

Wow. Yeah. So in other words, I mean, back to the snow and the panels, you're not even buying the electricity if there's snow on the panels at that point, right? So the panel's themselves are owned by a third party and you're just buying the electrons, is that correct?

Wolfgang Bauer 35:52

That is correct.

Dave Karlsgodt 35:53

What I guess I'm trying to get to is just learning a little more about what types of pushback did you have to overcome in coming up with this? I imagine people were excited about the concept of having a large solar array on campus. I mean, in general. There may have been some people that didn't like that idea. But once they knew they could drive their RVs underneath it. What other types of decision making gates did you have to go through as a team to get to the point of approving this? Who was involved? Everybody, from students to faculty to...or was it mostly folks from the administration of facilities? Or what did that look like?

Wolfgang Bauer 36:31

Well, I must say for the solar carport solution, there was zero pushback from any constituency. Everybody loved the idea. The students and staff that park under these, they have the great advantage that their cars are not cooked in the summer from the sun and that there's no snow on the cars in the winter. Our parking division loves this because they they're asked for asphalt in the parking lots is protected much better and they don't have to be surface as often. And our College of Agriculture loves this solution because they didn't have to give up any of their farmland that they used for, you know, either, either animals raising and teaching purposes, or, you know, food crops studies, or even turf cross studies. So none of this had to be given up. We could use land that was not used for any farming, just for parking. And the parking experience itself was vastly improved through it. Wind, on the other hand, we had much, much greater push back. And in the end, that's why I gave up on it for now. There was concerns that there was noise pollution, there would be shadow flickering, our department of entomology worried that the the patterns of insect movement across campus would be disturbed by turbulence induced by wind turbines. All kinds of reasons ice throw, ice throw is actually a real concern if you're not paying attention to this. So all of these considerations went away with a solar carport solution that everybody just loved.

Dave Karlsgodt 38:17

So ice throw, just to, I just I'm not familiar with that term, does that mean ice gets on the wind turbine blades and gets thrown off and could cause damage or hurt somebody I assume?

Wolfgang Bauer 38:27

That's right, in, in some weather conditions, the turbine blades may ice up. And then as they move around, throw ice off. And that can hurt animals and people on the ground if you're not careful where you're putting them.

Dave Karlsgodt 38:46

Interesting, I never heard of that one. Okay. Anyway, keep going. So it sounds like the solar carport answered a lot of the problems that you were having from constituents or stakeholders. What about getting the financing approved because this, I assume that signing long term power purchase agreements like this is not something that your administration is super familiar with?

Wolfgang Bauer 39:08

That's correct. But you know, since you really have to put no money down upfront and since universities are very, very long lift entities, there is really no risk involved in this decision for us. If you have a company, you know, especially in the internet age, there are lots of companies that have life expectancies of, even big companies, of 10 years or less. If you think about 10 years ago, AOL was, from the market value, the largest company in the world. And it has basically gone away. With universities the horizons are much, much longer. We've been founded in 1855. We've been in existence for over 160 years. We know that in the next 160 years, we'll still survive. The leading universities will have a long term place in America. And so signing a power purchase agreement for the next 25 years is no big deal to us.

Gary Farha 40:15

Dave, if I could just add on a couple points around decision making and what's happening more broadly in the market. So I agree with everything Wolfgang outlined in terms of the support for the project. But I will say that, to the credit of Wolfgang and some of the other leaders at the campus, they really did bore into this project in earnest. They spent real time on it and actually formed a kind of a cross functional team of different folks across the campus community, particularly folks that represented finance, treasury, sustainability, facilities, the utility plant. These were all people who had a potential stake in the solution needed to understand how it would affect their operations. And so it was important for them to be involved throughout the process so that their views and concerns could be heard and addressed. That, of course, also included faculty and students. And on the faculty side, in particular, the agricultural department within MSU, of course, was very vocal about the use of land on campus because it is used for educational and research purposes. And, but once the discussion moved from taking up farmland, to moving to carports, one of the biggest concerns of all went away. I would also say to the credit of all the way up to the top, the university president, President Simon, at that time, she actually spent 90 minutes with us, effectively going through every single question she had on her mind pretty late in the evaluation of the project, to make certain that she understood what impact it would have both economically as well as otherwise on the campus and ensure that she was comfortable supporting the decision, which eventually was presented by Wolfgang to the Board of Trustees. So these projects, because of their size, magnitude, the long term nature of the contract, they are decisions that are out of the ordinary relative to typical power procurement. Of course, again, in the case of Michigan State, since they generate their own power, they're used to making long term decisions, but many other universities aren't. And yet, they also get comfortable with these decisions if they they get the right people involved up the leadership chain, as well as involve faculty and students along the way. And we certainly are seeing that happen now across the country. Michigan State's a real, a real beacon in the state of Michigan. And I can tell you, and I'm sure Wolfgang can speak to it as well, the inspiration that has come to folks that visit campus, and not just folks who either work there or go to school there, but also people who drive by it. It's been quite, quite remarkable to see the passion and the interest, the, the expansion of thinking and excitement around renewables once you see something of this scale, for firsthand. But beyond that, you know, really because of Michigan State's leadership, and a few other campuses across the country, we're now seeing much more growth in this sector of more and more colleges and universities wanting to follow the lead that's already been laid out to them and to do it themselves. We now serve about a dozen of the largest research college universities across the country. And we're seeing more and more interest and uptake and, and folks have a lot of interest in connecting with Wolfgang to talk about their project, learn about it and think about what it might mean for their campus.

Dave Karlsgodt 44:16

Great, thanks for that context. So not to throw cold water on this discussion. And obviously, we were spending a whole episode talking about this project, so I'm very excited to talk about it and I think it's an amazing thing. It's, from what I understand, it was the largest solar carport in the country at the time it was put in? But doing on-site solar for Michigan State, especially at the scale, I imagine this is only a small percentage or overall percentage of your total energy use. And if your commitment is 100% renewable energy, what's next? I mean, is this just a warm up?

Wolfgang Bauer 44:48

In a certain sense it is. So I have designs for tripling our solar. This is so far just discussions and no concrete plans. But we have appetite for another 20 megawatt of this time ground mount with trackers solar arrays. We're also contemplating installing up to seven large-scale wind turbines on our campus. And I'm seriously looking into deep geothermal heating because we're really spending two thirds of our fossil fuel energy to keep the buildings warm in the winter. And so that's where I see the biggest impact.

Dave Karlsgodt 45:36

In other--we're getting away from gas, I assume, for steam?

Wolfgang Bauer 45:39

Yes, correct. So we want energy conservation measures play a big role, too. But energy conservation measures really only makes sense if we can slow the gas meter down. And so it can't just be renewable for renewable's sake, we also have to find ways to save money because, you know, our colors are green and white. And green means environmental sustainability, but green is also the color of money. And so true sustainability also means financial sustainability. And so we have to really make sure that what we're doing doesn't require additional money that has to then come out of the students and their parent's pockets or state support, but that we're saving money and giving our students a better deal in the process. And as Gary has pointed out, and with our help, we have been able to do this so far. And we will be able to do this in the future because these renewable technologies have matured to a point where now they're really competitive, and, in many cases, much cheaper than fossil fuel power sources.

Gary Farha 46:53

And a big, a big driver for that, if I could just build off Wolfgang's point is that with renewables, we're not burning any fuel, we don't have to go buy fuel over time, keep burning it to generate the electricity. The the sun and the wind is, of course, free. And it's a resource that can be harvested by technology that's becoming more and more efficient.

Dave Karlsgodt 47:19

Alright, my last main question here is what advice would you give to other campuses who are listening to this, hearing what you've done there? You know, what would you recommend to them if they were just getting started? I mean, I assume most of them probably don't have the sophisticated energy system that Michigan State does, but, you know, with that in mind, what advice would you give them?

Wolfgang Bauer 47:39

Well, I would say, get help. Yes, you're smart people. Yes, you can figure these things out. But in order to get the largest penetration into the available market space, you really need a partner like Gary's company, that can help you sort through all the different options, and all the different purchasing models, and all the different financing options, and all the different renewable energy options that are on the table. And they do that for a living. And partner with somebody doesn't, of course, necessarily have to be Gary's company. There are potentially other competitors out there. But for us, we had really good experiences with this company and we would go again with Customer First.

Dave Karlsgodt 48:29

That's a good commercial for you there Gary.

Gary Farha 48:33

Yeah, appreciate it Wolfgang. You've been a terrific client and organization to work with. I think building off what Wolfgang said, I would say, cast the net wide and explore your options. The great news because of all the improvement that's been happening around renewables and the increased interest by large organizations like Michigan State and others, is that it's, it's creating more and more options for, for, for customers. And the great thing about options is it gives you a lot more things to consider and effectively design around whatever parameters are most important to you. So it's just about cost. And cost is paramount and nothing else matters. That might lead you to a certain set of solutions. If things like maximizing reduction in greenhouse gases, or minimizing the future risk of power prices changing over time, that might lead you to a slightly different mix or set of different kinds of solutions, both on and off site. And, you know, if you step back and you are a significant user of electricity, the implication of all this is to think about a broad portfolio of solutions, not just, you know, putting all your eggs in one basket with one kind of solution. And I think that's implicit in what Wolfgang is continuing to think about as he thinks about how to scale renewables at MSU is thinking about a portfolio of solutions that best fit the needs of, of the university.

Dave Karlsgodt 50:17

Well, wrapping up today, I wanted to give you both a chance to let people know how they can get in touch with you. Is there a way they can reach out, or places they can go to learn more both about this project and also the the work of Customer First or this energy transition plan that's still ongoing at Michigan State? Gary, do you want to start?

Gary Farha 50:35

Sure, so one way to just get better educated around what's in the market and also, if you would like to contact our company is, of course, through our company website, which is customer first renewables, all one word, .com. And on our website, there's a lot of information there of an educational nature in terms of different kinds of solutions. We actually have a tab specifically on resources around higher education. We also, for those who might have a smaller energy and electricity usage than Michigan State, we found they can still get in the game by aggregating their usage with others, potentially in the region. And we're actually seeing more and more of that happen across the country, driven in part by large universities. So there's lots of different ways to get in the game and I think it's important to be an educated consumer as you think about it. So again, our website is customerfirstrenewables.com, is one thing. But I think you can also go to other sources, like, for example, the Rocky Mountain Institutes, BRC or Business Renewables Center, they have information, there's other websites from other organizations that provide a lot of content that just a few years ago, wasn't even really out there. So I think the educated consumer is the best one. Because they, they really get a clear sense for where they want to go. And we would encourage anyone to really do your homework and I think you'll find that there's, there's a lot to learn out there and a lot to get excited about.

Dave Karlsgodt 52:29

Great and I'll include those in the podcast notes for sure. Wolfgang, how can people get in touch with Michigan State?

Wolfgang Bauer 52:35

So from MSU's side, we made a website that's called energytransitionplan.msu.edu. And from there you can find relevant emails and phone numbers and history of basically what we talked about today and where we're going into the future.

Dave Karlsgodt 52:54

Excellent. Well, I wanted to thank you both, again, for taking the time to talk through this project. It's an inspiration for sure as, as somebody who looked at the potential for renewables, you know, many years ago, to see something actually in the ground is, is satisfying, even though I wasn't directly related to this project, but it was fun to see it come to fruition and we'll look forward to hearing more about your success in the future. So thanks again for taking the time today.

Wolfgang Bauer 53:19

Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Gary Farha 53:21

Thanks, Dave. Good to be with you.

Dave Karlsgodt 53:24

That's it for this episode. To learn more, you can always see the show notes at our website at campusenergypodcast.com. You can follow us on Twitter. We are @energypodcast. This show is a free service, but if you'd like to support the show, please consider leaving a rating a review on iTunes or just telling a friend about the show. As always, thanks for listening.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai