Last year, students in the 1800 block of the University Forest Apartments received a surprise when three apartments were chosen to be part of an experiment with solar power at the University of Richmond.

“When I told my roommates that our apartment was chosen for solar panels, we were all so excited,” says Jackie Stockinger, ’12, a resident of one of the units.

Leaders from facilities and sustainability hope this pilot project will teach them more about the installation, maintenance, and operation of renewable energy systems on campus.

“Since global climate change is a problem that the University is addressing, it’s important that we investigate all of our options to determine how we can lower our carbon footprint and reduce our emissions,” says Megan Litke, sustainability coordinator. “We want to make sure we are picking options that are best for the University and will help us get to our goal quickly.”

To test the potential for renewable energy, each of the three apartments relied on a different energy source—one used a photovoltaic cell for energy use, one used solar water heaters, and the third used traditional energy sources for a baseline comparison.

The success of the system cannot be fully evaluated because metering is ongoing. But the transition from traditional sources to solar went smoothly.

“The students in those apartments shouldn’t notice a difference,” Litke says. “It’s just a different source of electricity.”

Powering up with solar energy has inspired residents like Stockinger to be more conscious of own energy use and make changes to daily routines.

“Knowing that I have water that has been heated by solar panels, rather than by fossil fuels, makes me think about other aspects of my energy use and where it comes from,” Stockinger says. “I am more aware of what I could be doing to reduce waste in my everyday life.”

The solar project is part of a larger plan to implement renewable energy systems throughout campus. “We get any bumps that come with a new project out of the way on a small scale so that when we have a bigger project we’re ready to role it out smoothly and have a great implementation,” Litke says.

There are designs in progress for two new residence hall solar energy systems. The latest panels will help the sustainability and facilities offices determine which renewable sources are the best fit for the University.

Litke believes that solar is likely the most compatible choice over other renewable sources, such as wind energy. “Central Virginia just isn’t a windy spot,” she says. “But we have a lot of perfect solar days here, so we anticipate that solar will be a good system for us.”

Dave Merchan, a project engineer with University Facilities, estimates that a widespread solar system throughout campus could generate 600-750 kW, or approximately eight to 10 percent of the peak demand on campus. “Renewable energy systems are only a small portion of the measures we’ll have to incorporate to reach our goal of carbon neutrality,” he says.

For now, solar panels are the main focus, and the experiment on the 1800 block will be an important aspect of the evaluation process.

“It’s a great opportunity for everyone on campus to really take a look at solar panels, and see what they are,” Litke says. “And maybe everyone can be a little more comfortable with the technology.”