solar panels at dawn on campus

By Matthew Palmer
CatholicU, Spring 2024

For most of 2022 and 2023, there were hills of dirt as far as the eye could see on the University’s West Campus. But within the last year, a person could stand in front of the Rome School of Art and Music and watch the land transform just across Harewood Road — thanks to construction crews bringing in thousands of supplies and equipment.

By late fall in 2023, the 25-acre project began to take shape, as dozens of solar panel sheets covered the open fields. By spring of this year, a lingering switchgear was all that was left to be delivered, while work with the local power company tied up loose ends. 

This summer, the University will be home to the D.C. area’s largest solar array, one that is big enough to fill 19 football fields.

The work is already drawing praise from local leaders. The University won the 2024 Clean Energy DC Award from D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) in March for “its impressive solar array and sustainable operations.” The sheer enormity of the project has left many speechless.

“Witnessing this large-scale project in development helped my understanding of the process of construction and management,” said junior mechanical engineering major Kathleen Delate.”So much detail and hard work goes into the installation of the solar panels, as well as the process of converting solar energy into the energy we use in our everyday life.”

Delate was one of many students from Dr. Sen Nieh’s Introduction to Energy and Energy Systems course who were given a fall 2023 tour of the developing array.

The buzz around the project, not just from a pollinator habitat created there, was palpable. Curiosity reached its peak this spring.

“It’s just been amazing,” said Alexandra Harry Napier, the University’s director of the Office of Sustainability. “There’s been a lot of enthusiasm. Not many universities are going this big!"

Engineering class tours the solar array
Students tour the solar array project as part of an energy course.

Impacting the Community Via Faith

The planned June debut of the six-megawatt array is the result of a partnership with Standard Solar, which will own, operate, and maintain the system. Standard has developed, delivered, funded, and acquired more than 200 commercial and community solar and solar + storage projects.

Once online, the array will bring clean energy savings to D.C. residents, nonprofits, and businesses. It will be another visible sign of the University’s care for creation.

“The project will provide locally generated, renewable energy to our campus, and local residents and businesses,” said University President Peter Kilpatrick. “The array will save an estimated 7.115 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, and contribute to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goals to make Washington, D.C. carbon-neutral and climate-resilient by 2050.”

Before the new array, the University already hosted 2,600 solar panels that dot the main and north campuses. Locations include Aquinas Hall, Flather Hall, Gibbons Hall, Pangborn Hall, the Raymond A. DuFour Athletic Center, the Grounds, the Maintenance Building, and the O’Boyle Parking Lot — with 677 kW of total installed capacity.

The University’s efforts stem from a continuity in the Church’s consistent teachings on the care for creation. In a message to the University community, President Kilpatrick emphasized the words of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

“To respect life in all of its forms is to also care for the environment in which we live,” President Kilpatrick said. “This is the message, and invitation, of Pope Francis. It is a message we are listening to — and that Catholic University is acting upon.”

The University became one of the first universities in the world to sign onto a groundbreaking Vatican initiative, the Laudato Si’ Action Platform, by committing to a plan for environmental sustainability in 2021. The initiative is named after Pope Francis’ 2013 Encyclical, Laudato Si’, which is a roadmap for Catholic care for our common home, Earth.

“It’s really great to see a positive step into renewable energy because it will greatly help the surrounding community and also the Catholic University community now and in the future,” Delate said. “Taking steps toward renewable energy is great as a student here because as Catholics we should always be taking steps to be good stewards of this world that God provided for us.”

The University was named in Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges for 2023.

“At The Catholic University of America, we’re committed to Pope Francis’ call for environmental responsibility. Through education and innovative operations, we’re taking meaningful steps toward a more sustainable future,” said Alexandra Harry Napier.


alexandra harry napier
Alexandra Harry Napier leads the University's Office of Sustainability.

Caring About the Future, Today

Gen Z, the generation of students enrolled or currently looking at higher education institutions, is one of the most environmentally conscious in history. A 2021 Pew Research study found that “among social media users, nearly seven in ten Gen Zers (69%) say they felt anxious about the future the most recent time they saw content about addressing climate change.”

At Catholic University, the array project includes aspects that help mitigate its impact on the local environment. The array is being installed on a previously undeveloped portion of the 173.4-acre campus, and the University has arranged for many of the removed trees to be salvaged by the District of Columbia’s Urban Forestry Division. 

Trees that had been growing on the site were milled into benches, and stump seating will be donated to local schools and parks. Wood byproducts were slated to go to the University of the District of Columbia’s Center for Urban Agriculture, and higher-quality wood will be milled into lumber and donated to schools and nonprofits. The University’s sustainable actions on the site continue as new trees were planted along the perimeter of the array. Wildflowers have also been seeded between the panels, and beekeepers will tend to hives onsite.

An estimated 25% of the University’s electricity will come from the array, while the rest will be sold back to the grid. The University offsets 100% of its electricity usage through the purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs). RECs are tradable, non-tangible energy commodities that represent proof that 1 megawatt-hour of electricity was generated from a renewable energy source, such as solar or wind.

On a broad scale, the University focuses on efficiency by installing energy-efficient appliances such as ENERGY STAR-certified lighting, IT equipment, A/V equipment, and kitchen equipment. The Facilities team regularly upgrades buildings to more efficient equipment when undergoing renovations and also uses a building automation system to increase control over all campus building heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.

This Energy Project was the most significant energy conservation effort on campus in recent years. The solar array supports not only the University’s sustainability efforts but its educational mission as well.

“The students are really interested and have been asking: ‘Can we tour it?’ A big part of this project is that it’s a learning opportunity for our students and staff,” Harry Napier said.