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Friday, February 1, 2013

Reason, faith, service—and lots of energy—at CUA

Photo: Flicker/Chase McAlpine
Brian Alexander knows that the best source of power at the Catholic University of America comes not from the local power utility or even from the school’s array of solar panels—the largest in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Rather, what really powers CUA is its students.

“They keep you young,” Alexander said.

Alexander is CUA’s Director of Energy Environmental Systems. I chatted with him today to learn about the many eco-projects at this significant American Catholic institution. This conversation between engineers quickly showed that the real story here has more to do with soul than with reason—although both are evident in this Catholic university’s quest for sustainable living.

Chiefly in response to a growing awareness of human-induced climate change, the university has installed solar panels on seven buildings throughout the campus. The school has even built parking lot structures to host additional panels (and provide the added benefit of shielding cars from the weather). The solar installations have been the handy work of Maryland-based Standard Solar, but CUA’s students, faculty, and administration have been working alongside the firm in the full spirit of true, Catholic, relational partnership.

The school now receives some three percent of its power from its solar grid. That may not sound significant, but given that the school’s annual energy bill is some $5.5 million, a savings of even a few percent is welcome—to say nothing of the reduction in carbon emissions. These savings have caught the US Environmental Protection Agency, which ranks CUA eighteenth in institutions of higher education that use green power.

Alexander said the solar panels have “worked famously” but that the school has loftier plans. “Our goal is to increase our use of renewables to about five to ten percent of total usage,” he said.

In working with Standard Solar, CUA has also benefited in the classroom as well as on rooftops from the firm’s expertise. The firm works with the school’s already robust engineering department to provide students with a different kind of experience than can normally be found in the classroom.

The result of such collaboration has been cultivating students (from many disciplines) with energy- and eco-smart worldviews. And that can only mean a better equipped nation as the world competes to find cleaner and cheaper ways to fuel industries and homes.

Recognizing this, the school has teamed up with two other area schools—George Washington and American universities—to enter the 2013 Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the US Department of Energy. This is the first time that CUA or any DC area school has participated in this event.

Brian Alexander, center, with students at 
O’Boyle Parking Lot Solar Panel Dedication
 Photo: CUA.
CUA students have already designed—again with the help of Standard Solar and Washington Gas Energy Services—solar-powered picnic tables. These ingenious campus additions provide a place to sit, have a meal, and charge your electronics.

By now you can tell that the engineer in me is excited by these techno issues. But as a Catholic, I am equally if not more delighted in how these successes at CUA are models for Catholic institutions everywhere. Such work not only makes a difference in how we humans light our world. It also helps showcase the value of Catholic thought for the common good.

For instance, in the Washington Gas Energy Services website, a story on the solar picnic tables has this quote from CUA’s president: 
"Our Catholic faith calls us to be good stewards of the environment," said Catholic University President John Garvey. "Today we are celebrating two forward thinking examples of how we are doing that. One—the installation of additional solar panels—is focused on making our University's infrastructure more 'green.' The second is a collaborative teaching moment that has given our students the opportunity to apply what they learned in the classroom to actually building something that is environmentally friendly."
In other words, building a world that powers itself cleanly is consistent with the Catholic view of creation and our relation to it—to say nothing of our relation with each other and with the Triune God. This truth—presented in an energy utility’s website—will help many in the secular world come to know the Gospel—and that coming to know can only help to save souls.

Indeed, redemption is already part of the CUA eco-story. Alexander admits this when he contrasts his experiences at the school with his time employed by private energy companies. “I spent years drilling and burning gas,” he notes. “Now, working with these students gives me a chance to clean up some of all that.”

A green roof and solar panels at CUA. Photo courtest of CUA.
The work done by the school and its future leaders provide a broad range of eco-sustainable projects: improved recycling, less toxic forms of pest control, and better stormwater management, including the introduction of modern stormwater cisterns—a term that derives from the eco-friendly Cistercians of centuries past and the present.

Like the solar power arrays, projects like improved stormwater management come about by a combination of what is right and just in both moral and economic practice. When the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority utility began surcharging water bills based on impervious surface areas—that is, large, flat rooftops or land used for asphalt parking lots, which do not absorb rain water but instead send small rivers of polluted stormwater to overburned sewer systems—the school sought to reduce this surcharge by decreasing the amount of such surfaces. That brought another engineering challenge: increasing the amount of urban rainwater and snow melt that seeps underground.

Here again, CUA students are helping. Their designs and economic modeling are not only making this engineering issue a reality, they are providing them with practical experiences that make the world better for everyone.

Elsewhere, students studied ambient lighting in buildings to better time electric light usage. This provided an annual savings of $7,000. Not bad for one study by one group of sharp students.

And then there was the dumpster diving. When students sought to understand just how—or if—people were recycling, CUA students began exploring and cataloging the wastes in school dumpsters. The audit’s result was an improved recycling program (and, I’m sure, an appreciation for the important work done by sanitation workers).

It’s no wonder that Alexander—who heads the CUA’s energy services—gets most energized by the young men and women at CUA. “This is their future,” he said. And given the many eco-realities faced by today’s students—both economic and ecological—it is understandable and good to see them placing this Catholic institution on the sustainable-living map.

May God bless them all.

To learn more about CUA's solar program, visit their website here.


  1. Love it! Great story, Bill. Big congrats to CUA for their outstanding work!

    1. Thanks, Bill! Please share the post abundantly. It's a success story that needs telling and re-telling.

    2. Shared it two FB pages (Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center and Catholic Conservation Center). :-)


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