A large red-brick building on the UAB campus, with a small green area in front of it.

Power up

UAB still has long path to reach 2025 energy goals

by Sydney Cromwell

UAB engineering students spent two years designing and building a completely solar-powered house to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2017 Solar Decathlon. Their project, dubbed the surviv(AL) House, ultimately won fifth place overall.

Then, the surviv(AL) House returned to the University of Alabama – Birmingham campus. And it waited.

For more than a year, “it sat under a big tarp while they tried to figure out what to do with it,” said Joseph Hunt, the education, outreach and communication coordinator for UAB Sustainability.

It became an official part of the UAB campus in 2019, renamed the Solar House and installed on 11th Avenue South. Since then, Hunt said, the building has been a hub for sustainability programs and a demonstration of the possibilities of residential solar power.

The Solar House is also one piece of a larger sustainability push for the entire UAB campus.

A one-story white house with solar panels on its angled roof. A small wind turbine on a power pole, and a rainwater cistern on the back deck, are also visible.
The UAB Solar House has rooftop solar panels and a rainwater collection cistern. Photo by Sydney Cromwell.

20 BY ‘25

UAB’s daily operations require a lot of electricity — about 175,000 kilowatt hours each year.

When UAB Sustainability created its current strategic plan in 2018, one of its most ambitious goals was to convert 20% of that energy consumption to renewable sources by 2025. Sustainability Manager Bambi Ingram said the university has calculated that it will need 35,000-40,000 kilowatt hours of sustainable energy to meet the 20 by ‘25 goal.

“That’s a pretty significant amount of solar, so we are looking at options for purchasing power from a solar farm — preferably one in Alabama,” Ingram said via email. “We are also investigating the purchase of electricity from wind farms.”

Ingram also said the university’s Planning, Design, and Construction department is incorporating “solar readiness” into the bidding process for new construction. Solar-ready buildings are designed with a future rooftop solar array in mind, factoring in shade levels, roof design, where and how equipment will be installed and even the building’s orientation toward the sun.

Three years into the strategic plan, there aren’t many physical signs on campus of progress toward renewable power.

Ingram said less than 1% of UAB’s electricity currently comes from sustainable sources like solar and wind. There is a 100-panel solar array on the university’s Campus Recreation Center, and the Solar House’s micro-grid and battery system are self-sustaining. 

Two of UAB’s recently opened buildings have received LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certifications for energy and water efficiency: the College of Arts and Sciences building in 2019, which was given a silver rating, and the McMahon residence hall in 2021, which received a gold rating. 

However, none of the campus’s current construction projects are considered “solar ready.”

“It is something that we will consider with future projects,” she said.

Though the vast majority of that 20% goal is not yet achieved, Ingram said she’s confident the campus will get there by its 2025 deadline.

“We have been investigating our options for a few years now, and the opportunities for purchasing renewable energy increase every day,” she said.

Ingram said she doesn’t expect UAB’s utility bill to get pricier by adopting solar. The costs of generating solar power, including panel construction and battery storage, have declined steeply since 2010, according to the Department of Energy and media outlet Utility Dive.

Read more of Southern Science’s reporting about the state of solar energy in Alabama.

CROSS-CAMPUS CHANGES

Ingram said UAB’s students, faculty and staff have told the university that climate change is a major concern. While 20 by ‘25 is a banner project for UAB Sustainability’s strategic plan, the university has committed to a number of other initiatives to make the campus more environmentally friendly.

Ingram championed Green Labs, a program started in 2017 to reduce waste and energy consumption in research laboratories. It is now one of the largest sustainable lab programs in the world, according to My Green Labs.

“Through that program we address energy and water use, as well as the serious concerns of plastic and Styrofoam waste,” Ingram said.

In December, Green Labs won the overall academic award at the international Freezer Challenge, based on their energy efficiency efforts in cold storage.

Ingram said the campus is also planning to add a fast-charging site on campus for electric vehicles, to complement the charging stations installed in 2016 and 2017.

About 10 to 12 raised garden beds are visible, with some growing produce and wildflowers, while others are dormant for the winter. Behind the garden beds, a black retaining wall has a mural of pollinating creatures and flowers.
Community garden plots at UAB in December 2021. Photo by Sydney Cromwell.

Other initiatives mentioned in UAB Sustainability’s strategic plan include commercial composting; pollinator habitats and gardens; decreasing food and other material waste; water conservation; stormwater management; and encouraging alternative transportation (bikes, walking, public transit) to reduce vehicle emissions.

One initiative that has not made the priority list, however, is the Green Revolving Fund. According to the strategic plan website, the fund would be set up “to invest money in projects that improve efficiency and decrease resource use,” with the savings from those projects reinvested in the fund to support future projects.

Ingram said UAB is “not currently pursuing” the creation of the Green Revolving Fund.

“Instead we are working through efficiency initiatives that have a return on investment (ROI) of about seven years or less,” she said.

NET POSITIVE

Meanwhile, the Solar House will play a mostly educational role in UAB Sustainability’s strategic plan, as a place to demonstrate conservation-friendly practices and the center of a future sustainable “neighborhood.”

The rooftop solar array and batteries, located in a storage container on the property, generate and store enough power for the Solar House to be “net-positive,” Hunt said. The house can operate its lights, air conditioning, plumbing and appliances — including a washer and dryer — with energy left over.

The house also has a rainwater collection cistern that Hunt said can be used to fill its toilet tanks. Ingram said the site’s rainwater system will eventually have its own solar array to benefit the neighboring community garden plots.

“This array will power the pump that’s used to distribute water through the gardens and landscaped areas. We are excited about using this as a model for area farmers who might not be able to tie their irrigation systems to the electrical grid,” she said.

Hunt said the university plans to build more small, solar-powered homes at the Solar House property, creating a demonstration site for community and school groups. UAB has also previously considered the idea of student housing at the site.

Aside from these future plans, the Solar House acts as a hub for sustainability-related groups on campus. Most recently, last fall it hosted a display from UAB and area high school artists about monarch butterfly migration.

Learn more about upcoming programs at the UAB Solar House.

Main article image courtesy of Lee Adlaf, Wikimedia Commons.

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