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Located in the Swannanoa Valley, just east of Asheville, North Carolina, Warren Wilson College has a long standing history of being a steward of the natural environment. In 1980, Warren Wilson formulated its first written commitment to environmental leadership. In 1982, driven by student initiative Warren Wilson started the first recycling program in Buncombe County that now diverts 50% of all consumer waste on campus from the landfill. In 1996, Warren Wilson established the Environmental Leadership Center, an organization dedicated to lowering the environmental impact of Warren Wilson. In 2004, the college built the first LEED Platinum student dormitory in the nation, the Eco Dorm. In 2005, Warren Wilson’s new admission building was the first building in North Carolina to be LEED-Gold certified.
As exhibited by eight officially documented written environmental commitments and declarations, Warren Wilson College is dedicated to fostering a healthy world for all to live in. However, their source of electricity, Duke Energy’s Lake Julian Coal Plant, is illegally leaking coal ash into the French Broad River (Gutierrez, 2013), the Swannanoa Valley’s main water supply. North Carolina is currently filing a law suit against Duke Energy, which has apparently been illegally dumping oil in water systems across the state (Sullivan, 2013).
Warren Wilson needs to move away from coal and natural gas completely, and into a realm of renewable energy. Aware of the dire need to move away from fossil fuels, Warren Wilson put a plan into action in 2008 to cut Green House Gas emissions by 80% before the 2014/2015 school year. Unfortunately, CO2 emissions have risen since the plan’s inception. Students and faculty are coming together over this enormous conflict of interest — environmental stewardship and a growing carbon footprint.
Their solution: solar panels. A group of students and staff, known as the Solar Team, is developing a plan to install a 30 kWh solar array at little to no cost to the college on the Eco Dorm through grants and partnerships with investors, bringing the dorm to at least a status of Net-Zero and, potentially, a status of Net-Positive. This is but a small part of a larger plan. If the Eco Dorm project succeeds, the Solar Team will propose a major solar array to bring the entire campus to at least Net-Zero by the year 2020.
The most costly expenditure that Warren Wilson faces is the college’s energy consumption. Installing a solar system of any kind would result in eventual payback to the college, especially if their initial investment was little to none. For example, it will cost roughly $115,000 to install a 30kwH solar array at Eco Dorm, but after approximately 7 years, the array will have paid itself off, and the college will be making money off of clean energy rather than spending excessive amounts of money on harmful energy.*
Direct consumption of energy is only half of the battle as far as a commitment to the well-being of the natural environment is concerned. Warren Wilson College was bumped off of the Sierra Club’s Top 10 Greenest Colleges list this year due to “questionable” investments. A student led Divestment Campaign is working toward the goal of divesting from all fossil fuels and reinvesting in local partners who comply with Warren Wilson’s dedication to cultivating a thriving ecosystem.
A 2007 study done by the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative and Mercer has shown that there is neither fiscal penalty nor fiscal benefit from a fossil fuel screen on an investment (UNEP, 2012). If there is no financial harm to come from doing environmental good, a school with such a dedication to the greater good of the world should have no objection to reaping benefits from a financial investment in a local business that would ultimately reap societal benefits as well.
It is my recommendation that Warren Wilson follow the aforementioned green initiatives of PV installation and divestment from fossil fuels in order to create a world that nurtures the needs of nature and humans alike.
*All estimates based on numbers generated from: find-solar.org.
Ayla Rand is a student at Warren Wilson College and a finalist for the 2013 SaveOnEnergy.com® Education Scholarship. For more information about SaveOnEnergy's scholarship program, visit our scholarship information page.