Students rally for use of solar energy on campus

Members of Environmental Core gathered in Hahn Plaza Wednesday to urge University officials to use solar panels for electricity. Photo by Tucker Judkins | Daily Trojan

Environmental Core, a student environmental activist club, held its annual solar rally to advocate for USC to transition to solar panels on Wednesday afternoon.

USC is not exactly known for its commitment to sustainability, said Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, the head of the Go Solar Carbon Neutrality Campaign for Environmental Core.

The administration has told the club that solar panels are not financially feasible for USC at this time, Shaw-Wakeman said, but the activists still wanted to spread the word.

“For the past four to five years, we’ve been pushing USC to commit to solar energy,” Shaw-Wakeman said. “A lot of those efforts have not come to fruition. However, we want to make sure that students, faculty and the entire Trojan family are aware that there is still a student push for solar energy and that will never go away.”

However, Mark Ewalt, USC’s executive director of administrative operations, said the installation of solar technology would cost the University more than it would help it. USC would have to retrofit old buildings to install solar panels, according to Ewalt.

“To install solar [panels] on a building, you have to go into the walls, for infrastructure, for electrical, for those things that you connect it with — you un-grandfather that,” Ewalt said. “Those things really make solar [energy] a very expensive proposition. It’s good, it’s the right thing to do, but the cost-benefit pushes the return on that investment out three years. The question we ask, ‘Is that the best spend of your tuition money?’ We think no, because of the way it’s loaded there.”

But members of the Environmental Core, or ECore, were not pleased Ewalt’s explanation. Simon Blessenohl, an ECore member and a Ph.D. student studying philosophy, said money should not be the main consideration when it comes to sustainability.

“The thing we maximize here is not USC’s profit,” Blessenohl said. “The thing we maximize is welfare of the global population, really … I think it’s just the wrong way to think about the problem. Even if it doesn’t break even, it’s still worth the investment because the returns are not in dollars, but in welfare of people.”

Blessenohl also believes that the University has demonstrated its priorities based on its spending.

“If you look at the magnitude of investments USC has done in the past — like $700 million for the new Village, zero dollars for solar power — I guess that should all make us think about whether the people who make these decisions have the right priorities,” Blessenohl said.

However, ECore members wanted to remind students and faculty that there are other ways of being a sustainable campus aside from using solar energy. Philine Qian, director of sustainability affairs for Undergraduate Student Government and an ECore member, thinks there are more ways to achieve a sustainable campus.

“We need to be carbon neutral, we need to be energy efficient, and we need to be smarter about our energy decisions in general,” Qian said. “Solar energy is not the only answer. It can be part of the answer, but we have much more work to do.”

Qian pointed out the lack of involvement from the USC administration, noting how the push for sustainability initiatives mostly stems from students.

“I think it’s sad because, really, the University’s sustainability structure is run by about 10 people on our campus — it’s really stressful,” Qian said. “Not to be mistaken, there are people who care. But I just don’t feel there’s an urgent need [for change], and that’s how sustainability groups have felt for years.”

However, Ewalt said that it is USC’s location that makes it impossible for the University to approve solar panels.

“Solar [energy], for a number of reasons, does not work very well at USC in this Los Angeles basin region,” Ewalt said. “And the reason that it doesn’t is the cost-benefit proposal for solar [energy] in this region, which is owned by the Department of Water and Power. Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power prohibits certain cost benefits that would make solar affordable.”

According to Ewalt, if USC were to install solar panels on every building, those solar panels would only produce enough energy to cover 10 percent of USC’s total power usage. The power collected would go back into the energy grid, essentially stopping USC from using its own power, Ewalt said. And according to Ewalt, there is no tax-benefit incentive because USC is a tax-exempt institution.

Ewalt agreed that USC is behind its peers in sustainability programs and said President C. L. Max Nikias has been focusing on raising USC in academic rankings.

“To accomplish that much in that short amount of time, you have to concentrate on the main thing, which is academics, student teaching and research,” Ewalt said. “And so they concentrated on those areas, and to do that you have to leave some other things off the table.”

Shaw-Wakeman argued, however, that since USC is focused on research, it should understand the importance of solar panels.

“I think it’s actually surprising, because USC’s mission statement is focused on research and academia,” Shaw-Wakeman said. “One of the core things with research is you don’t usually expect anything in the next three years. Research usually takes tons of time, it takes a lot of money, it takes a lot of effort. But your goal is for people and your goal is usually future-oriented and the exact same is true with environmentalism.”

ECore members believe that the University should strive to make a positive environmental impact for future generations.

“If USC’s statement is for research and for a better future, that’s environmentalism, and that’s sustainability, and that’s what needs to be focused on in the solar decision,” Shaw-Wakeman said.