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HBS Sets a Milestone in Renewable Energy

Since last week, HBS is a more environmentally friendly place to be. Few people noticed the electricity generation solar panels being installed on Shad’s roof, but the building will now generate around 36kW of power at peak times, which is the equivalent of the energy needs of 20 households.

This amount will spare the emission of 75,000 lbs of CO2 per year, or the equivalent of about 220 fewer cars on the road per year. The 36,480 Watts DC panel is believed to be the second largest in the Boston Area, and behind its quiet installation lies the amazing persistence and a year of hard work of Brian Robertson (HBS ’04) and Dan Cook (HBS ’04), the co-presidents of the Sustainable Development Society. Their goal is to promote the use of clean electricity generation by communicating the economic structure, barriers and opportunities to renewable energy usage and energy efficiency building design. “This project proves that moral reasons do not have to be at odds with financials. There is no reason not to choose to do the right thing,” they explained.

The idea came through an email they received last year, from an HBS’01 alumni, who inquired about a feasibility study on installing a solar panel on campus, on behalf of his employer. The first round of inquiry brought up the main concerns: cost and aesthetics. The company soon withdrew from the project, but Brian and Dan had found a vision that stretched far beyond their time at HBS. They wanted to provide a model for other institutions to learn from. “If you want to demonstrate a viable alternative energy model, what better place to raise awareness than at HBS!” So regardless of their lack of financing, technology expertise or an acceptable location, they had a solar panel to install and they put their minds to it.

They first determined that Shad was the best option. “It has a flat roof so the panels can’t be seen, it is bigger than Burden and it is a very popular building with visitors both from HBS and outside,” Dan explained. Looking for sources of financing was a daunting task, and many of their alternatives did not work out for various reasons. But far from giving up, they decided to apply to the MTC Government Grant Program, which supports renewable energy projects by redistributing a percentage of the tax paid on electricity bills. They solicited feasibility studies from nine solar panel providers. “The truth is, we used those bids to determine tech specifications and budget for the grant proposal, since we had no idea how much it would cost,” they admitted with a smile. Those RC negotiation skills came in handy, as they narrowed the bidders to three and played them off each other to get the best price possible. Total cost would be $365,300, and the grant, if their project was selected, would provide only $172,000. Their passion about the environment was not going to be a compelling enough argument to get them the money, so making use of FIN I and II concepts, they developed a set of projections that made economic sense. “The key is to change the way in which these projects are analyzed. Instead of focusing on the payback period, you need to see it as a prepaid electricity cost, similar to electricity futures. A stable energy price is valuable to a building manager,” Brian explained, as he pointed out this was one of the key lessons of the project. They prepared a comprehensive 15 page memorandum outlining the project, and were awarded the grant over approximately twenty other ideas.

The rest of the funding was provided by Harvard University. The Harvard Green Campus Initiative (HGCI) a system of loans that supports green initiatives on campus waived their 5 year payback requisite to lend them $150,000, based on the benefits of the program. The rest was committed by HBS. “We were very pleasantly surprised by the amount of work that Harvard is already doing on energy saving throughout campus” they confessed. In fact, by working with Frank Hayes, Chief of Operations at HBS, they discovered that an energy saving plan at Shad was already being implemented, including $210,700 in efficiency improvements and a $205,100 co-generation facility (a liquid-propane based generator that simultaneously heats water), which is planned to be installed in the near future.

So their efforts paid off, the panels were finally installed three weeks ago and started generating electricity last week. They have plans to install a device where all visitors can check the amount of electricity generated and CO2 saved, and possibly make this information available real time through the internet. But for Brian and Dan, this is only the “tip of the iceberg” of what can be achieved in this area. They expect renewable energy generation to fill the gap between increased demand and the supply of the over-utilized grid. This would not only benefit the environment, but is essential in increasing our energy independence and reliability – no more blackouts! – against the current background of terrorism. Their wish is that this project helps other organizations accelerate their own efforts in implementing green-energy projects. But for now, they have proved that HBS is a place where visions came true, and we thank them for it.

September 29, 2003
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