Solar Energy

ASU's Solar Program Almost Paying for Itself Already, ASU Mag Says

The massive roll-out of solar panels and structural supports at Arizona State University in the last couple of years is already nearly paying for itself, ASU Magazine reports this month.

In the magazine's December edition, an article on "carbon neutrality" by Texas freelance writer Eric Butterman, (they can't find a J-school student to write this stuff?), makes the amazing claim, which Butterman attributes to the university's sustainability operations officer, John Riley.

"The solar program is rapidly reaching the break-even point financially," Butterman paraphrases Riley.

Just one problem with that statement. No way can it be true.

See also: -Solar Eclipsed: Why the Sun Won't Power Phoenix Despite an Industry Boom

This is an enormous project, as anyone who's visited ASU's Tempe campus in the past year can attest. Panels and support structures shade cars in several parking lots and garages, and cover the plaza on the north side of the Memorial Union like the electronic display on Vegas' Fremont Street.

When we published our article last December about the high expense and inherent weaknesses of solar power, we mentioned the ASU solar plan. The university, under President Michael Crow's leadership, is moving toward the admirable goal of trying to limit greenhouse gas emissions from university operations as much as possible while in the middle of an expansion craze. As Butterman's article notes just before its line about solar nearly breaking even, ASU increased its square footage by 26 percent from 2007 to 2012, while greenhouse emissions actually went down by 16 percent.

As of last year, private businesses had invested about $90 million in ASU's solar program, with ASU agreeing to purchase the power generated by those systems over the next 20 years. (The program also benefited from a 30-percent federal tax credit and other subsidies). Since then, ASU has more than doubled the program's maximum capacity, from 10 megawatts to 20.8.

ASU expects to save money on its solar program over that 20 years as long as typical utility rates go up by about 40 percent, which is considered likely, university officials told New Times last year.

An article about college sports programs going "green" published this fall by the National Resources Defense Council has an ASU official saying the break-even point might be 25 years, not 20:

Dave Brixen, associate vice president of ASU facilities development and management, explains the incentive: "ASU realizes its solar energy ROI (return on investment) when the solar price is lower than paying for 'brown power' over the long term. Our actual solar energy break-even point depends on how accurately we can predict energy price escalators and inflation over the next 20-25 years."

Wiley gets close to acknowledging the reality of the arrangement further down in the ASU magazine article, where he states that ASU will have "constants in costs over the next 15 years, while utility rates go up... We will [eventually] pay less for solar power than [buying] directly from the utility system."

(The ellipses and paranthetical insertions in the latter quote are Butterman's.)

We phoned Wiley last week and this morning to ask him why he reportedly told the ASU magazine the solar program was "rapidly reaching the break-even point financially." Did Butterman misquote him? Does Riley feel that statement is correct, and if so, how is it correct?

Riley didn't return any of our messages. We'll let you know if we hear back.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.