SOU’s Path to a 100% Solar-Powered Campus
- Written by Natalia Hurt
- Published in Brand Stories
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Brand Story - Sustainability and accessibility guide the University’s new revenue strategy.
Southern Oregon University (SOU) is introducing entrepreneurial new revenue streams designed to lessen its reliance on tuition hikes and state funding. While it plans to become the country’s first 100% solar-powered campus, its ultimate goal goes even further. Situated on the sunny side of Oregon with 175 acres, SOU wants to establish itself as a solar energy producer for the region, introducing a new form of long-term revenue and sustainability.
For now, the University is working to expand its existing solar power capacity and move toward complete self-sufficiency. From there, it will continue increasing production to become a stable source of energy for local communities, generating a new revenue stream that decreases its dependence on tuition. New University President Dr. Rick Bailey is no stranger to this model.
Southern Oregon University President Dr. Rick Bailey
“President Bailey’s experience is a huge part of this,” says Joe Mosley, SOU’s Director of Communications. “He’s done this before as president of Northern New Mexico College. He knows the ins and outs of making it happen.”
For public universities in the U.S., the funding status quo relies on endless tuition hikes that overburden students and discourage potential applicants.
“Twenty-five years ago, two-thirds of funding came from the state and one-third came from tuition. That ratio has flip-flopped,” Mosley explains. “That brings us to the question, why haven’t universities been more entrepreneurial and looked for other revenue streams?”
With the arrival of Dr. Bailey in 2022, the school reevaluated its revenue model as part of a larger initiative that emphasizes (1) the reassessment and careful management of existing costs, (2) grants, (3) philanthropic support, and (4) an entrepreneurial approach to new revenue.
The school hopes to reach full energy self-sufficiency by 2035, requiring a long-term commitment to sustainability that Mosley says is already built into the fabric of the school.
“Sustainability is a huge part of who we are as an institution,” he explains. “Our students have several projects that indicate their support for sustainability measures.”
The student-approved Green Fund, for example, helped fund two of the University’s solar arrays. The money that would have gone to pay power companies, now goes back into the fund, enabling students to reinvest in sustainability projects.
Another student-led initiative is the The Farm at SOU, which focuses on organic farming, education, research and community outreach.
“We also have academic programs that give students an opportunity to learn about sustainability and environmental issues,” Mosley adds. “Those are very popular on campus, and we’re getting graduates placed in positions out in the real world where they can put that knowledge to use.”
A recent $12-million philanthropic donation from Lithia Motors, the school’s largest ever, created the Lithia & GreenCars Momentum Fund, which enables impactful new initiatives that bolster sustainability and diversity. It creates a scholarship fund focused on recruiting and retaining populations typically underrepresented in academia and a President’s Fund geared toward innovation and entrepreneurship.
Notably, it also establishes the Institute for Applied Sustainability, which will identify and implement initiatives that foster a sustainable campus.
While expanding its renewable energy production, the University simultaneously invests in energy-saving measures across campus: upgrading its boilers and chillers, swapping in LED lighting and upgrading its HVAC systems. Additionally, all new constructions and renovations meet or surpass LEED Silver Certification requirements.
As SOU builds its reputation as a sustainability trailblazer in the US, it will work to secure new partnerships that translate directly into academic and professional opportunities for students.
“It’s really important for people to know the reason we’re doing all this: Ultimately, we’re hoping it means that more students will have access to Southern Oregon University,” Mosley says. “Sustainability and accessibility go hand in hand. We want to set ourselves up for the future in ways that will take some of the heat off of our students and their parents when tuition time comes. Our revenue-generating ideas are all geared toward that.”
The University’s revenue diversification efforts currently encompass four initiatives: (1) the production & sale of solar energy, (2) an on-campus senior living facility, (3) a University Business District, and (4) an IT consulting service.
SOU is switching to an entirely new information management system, cutting costs significantly. Similar to the solar project, phase II of this IT project also transitions into a revenue stream that sees the school’s IT staff operate as a consulting firm, helping other universities achieve the same IT transformation.
According to Mosley, the biggest hurdles facing the University on its path toward these long-term goals are funding and patience.
“We’re finding that if we’re patient, there’s money to help us achieve what we want to do. We’d all like energy self-sufficiency to happen tomorrow, but it takes a while to line up the funding and complete construction,” he concludes. “Luckily, there’s consensus across the board that this is the right way to go as we head into the future.”
As it establishes itself as a solar-power pioneer, SOU hopes to become a model and resource for other institutions, inspiring a transformation across higher education that drives sustainability and accessibility for years to come.
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