As energy costs continue to rise, many schools and universities are considering energy-saving solutions, including solar heating options, to lower costs and to attract students and staff that support environmentally friendly practices.

However, administrators and facility engineers should take several issues into account before pursuing a solar heating system.

Solar System Considerations

When contemplating whether a campus is a good solar candidate, administrators should consider whether the system would be integrated into a centralized system or if the current system is decentralized around the campus; whether the campus has available space on rooftops or land to house solar panels; and whether the solar project would be part of new construction or retrofit to an existing facility.

In addition, campus managers need to determine the year-round heating and domestic water needs and evaluate solar options compared with the current use of other energy sources, including natural or propane gas, fuel oil and electric.

Last year, District Energy St. Paul produced the Midwest's largest solar thermal project. The project offered additional energy output to District Energy's distribution system, which heats 80 percent of the buildings in downtown St. Paul. It was made possible by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's "Solar America Communities" program and matching funds from District Energy St. Paul.

For this project, the solar thermal system was integrated with a central district heating system for the city-owned, 162,000-square-foot convention center. It consisted of 144 solar thermal panels, measuring 20-feet-long by 8-feet-tall, connected in a series of six to seven panels. The new system offers peak energy production of 1.2 megawatts and reduces carbon-dioxide emissions by 900,000 pounds annually. The system was retrofitted atop the city's convention center, which offered more than 1 acre of unshaded area, roughly half the size of a football field.

Additional items for education institutions to consider when exploring energy-efficient options include whether a solar application could be used to support curriculum that teaches alternative energy design; whether a school emphasizes green initiatives to new students and faculty; and if a campus has remote buildings that require heat or electricity.

Recently two solar projects were completed for Dakota County Technical College, Rosemount, Minn. The first involved the design of a photovoltaic solar station that provided electrical power for a remote outdoor sports complex building. The photovoltaic system also offered "real-world" experience for students in its electrical construction and maintenance technology program.

The second project was a solar thermal installation that provides supplemental heating for the greenhouse used by the college's Landscape Horticulture program.

In addition, many schools that build additional surface parking areas or parking ramps are considering solar options to provide energy and heat to the structures. Another way to integrate solar energy is by using it in athletic wellness facilities that are used year-round by students as well as the general public. Given the high domestic hot-water requirement, providing a solar heating system may make sense.