Solar energy in the U.S. is quickly growing, and campuses are well-positioned to deploy this source of renewable energy. Not only is it becoming a more affordable way to address campus carbon mitigation goals, it also provides a fantastic learning tool for schools seeking to engage their students through projects and make their campus a living laboratory. However, engaging students in meaningful ways, and building partnerships across facilities and academics can be challenging when implementing solar projects, due to the highly technical nature of the work and the inherently long timelines for development.

For a group of schools in the Midwest, a new Second Nature initiative has provided an exciting way to address these challenges. Last year, Second Nature began working as a technical advisor to Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA)which is funded through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiativewith the aim to expand solar energy adoption and investment in Higher Ed, and provide solar technical training. Through what is called the Solar University Network, these organizations are piloting a results-focused approach with universities that leverages the experience of MREA’s national solar technical assistance team through professional development events, the facilitation of campus solar development teams, training, and direct technical assistance.

So what does this mean? The program has helped university stakeholders realize the benefits of solar and renewable energy by establishing and supporting Student Solar Engagement Teams, developing University Solar Roadmaps, and defining strategies for endowments or foundations to make investments in solar power. After the initial cohort of 4 schools in the Midwest, 5 additional schools are now participating.

This initiative is particularly exciting because it creates an effective and impactful way for students at higher education institutions to engage with, learn from, and contribute to solar projects on campus. Through these Student Solar Engagement Teams, students are contributing to the creation of roadmaps for solar which not only guide the school towards their ultimate solar goals, but also delineate concrete short-term action and projects that students can be a part of. In addition, technical training through online courses such as “Solar Site Assessment” help students build their resumes and knowledge, giving them a leg up in the growing solar industry after graduation.

“Working with the University of Minnesota Solar University Network Delegation helped me develop my professional networks and career goals, and was a big factor in finding my summer internship with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.”–said Hanna Terwilliger, a Master of Public Policy Candidate from University of Minnesota–“I also know that I am advancing solar on an institutional level as I and other students advocate for University of Minnesota decision-makers to move forward with investments in solar energy.”

“My experience with the Solar University Network has led to immense personal development, a full time career after graduation, and overall a leg forward in the field of renewable energy.”–added Tim Pollnow, Senior Electrical Engineer and graduate, also from from University of Minnesota.

Speaking to what he learned, Mauricio Leon, a University of Minnesota Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy Student masters candidate said: “I think that one of the most important things that I learned from the SUN Delegation is the importance of working with people from different disciplines but with a common goal. I learned that the renewable energy field can be approached from many different angles and it is not limited to engineering or science.”

Their experience is shared by others. One student participant from Illinois State University secured a job after completing the program, and said how work with the Solar University Network provided experience and knowledge that gave him a great advantage in the interview process. The same is true for Purdue University. These stories reflect the immense impact this kind of program can have on the lives and careers of our students, and there’s really no downside when the process also helps you be a step closer to carbon neutrality. We look forward to celebrating these student and campus accomplishments even more, once the final details of the proposed projects are finalized, installed, and begin generating solar power.

To expand this initiative across the country, we expect  the online course,the finalized Solar Roadmap materials, and other tools to be publicly available starting in January 2017. If your institution is interested in learning how to implement a student-focused solar engagement team or create a comprehensive solar roadmap, or use endowments resources to invest in solar, please find the existing resources here or contact Janna Cohen-Rosenthal. You can learn more about this and other opportunities in our Initiatives Page.

Schools participating so far are:

2015 Cohort

  • University of Minnesota (Climate Leadership Commitments signatory)
  • Illinois State University (Climate Leadership Commitments signatory)
  • Missouri University of Science and Technology (Climate Leadership Commitments signatory)
  • Purdue University

2016 Cohort

  • Virginia Commonwealth University (Climate Leadership Commitments signatory)
  • University of Richmond (Climate Leadership Commitments signatory)
  • University of Vermont (Climate Leadership Commitments signatory)
  • Swarthmore College (Climate Leadership Commitments signatory)
  • Minnesota State University, Mankato
Image: Students Hanna Terwilliger,Tim Pollnow, and Mauricio Leon from University of Minnesota engage with the MREA team for technical advice on for their Solar Roadmap and proposed solar projects at the 2016 Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference in Baltimore.