January 20, 2021
Cooperation, Collaboration, & Commitment: Inside the New York Higher Education Consortium
Edison Energy’s Visionary Voices: Perspectives in Energy Series features conversations with leading experts from across the industry. These thought leaders are driving innovation in energy markets and available solutions for commercial, industrial and institutional energy buyers. Their diverse perspectives and experience offer a real-time view into the transformation happening in the market today.
Indu Lnu, the University Energy Officer at The University at Albany (UAlbany), was a founding member of the New York Higher Education Large Scale Renewable Energy (NY HE LSRE) Consortium and serves on the Consortium’s Steering Committee. The Consortium consists of twenty-one higher education institutions across New York State, including State University of New York (SUNY) state operated campuses, community colleges, and private higher education institutions. A Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-accredited professional and certified energy manager, Indu Lnu’s expertise lies in energy efficiency and conservation, sustainability, and building energy performance.
When did you begin working toward renewable energy procurement? How did you introduce it to your campus?
UAlbany has been working on on-site solar PV for over 6 years but could not make the economics work for a large-scale project. We finally are moving forward with a 2MW onsite project but it will barely generate enough electricity to meet 2% of our annual electricity needs. We realized early on that even if onsite rooftop PV and solar carports were financially viable, we only have sufficient area to generate less than 15% of our annual needs. As such, we recognized the need to look for offsite options to achieve 100% renewable electricity. The idea for procuring this as a consortium came about in 2017 after attending a conference presentation by MIT on their large scale renewable energy (LSRE) procurement. We presented it to not only our campus but 29 other campuses as a way to cost-effectively procure renewable electricity. We used the concept of risk mitigation as our main driver.
How was the NY HE Consortium formed? How was a Steering Committee leadership approach decided upon?
NY HE Consortium was formed shortly after the workshop we conducted for 30 campuses and SUNY Administration in Fall 2017. SUNY was drawn to the idea because of the advantage it could provide to smaller campuses through economies of scale and agreed to serve as the lead entity. They sent out Letters of Intent to all 30 campuses and received signed commitments to participate in early 2018 from twenty-one campuses, thus forming the consortium. The campuses agreed to stay in the Consortium until we formally went to market with a competitive solicitation and received bids in response.. There was no cost to them unless they ultimately decided to sign a power purchase agreement (PPA). With many entities at the table, we knew that we needed a smaller group who would represent all campuses and be responsible for project management, communications with participating campuses, as well as technical support and review. With SUNY Administration as the lead entity, UAlbany, Binghamton University, and Cornell University were automatically included in the Steering Committee given their status as anchor campuses. We asked interested representatives from other campuses to submit an interest statement with a short biography and held a vote across the campus members. As a result, Ithaca College, SUNY Cortland, SUNY Purchase, and Hudson Valley Community College were added.
How did the Consortium go about setting a procurement strategy?
Due to the no-cost promise to consortium campuses, we had always intended to roll any consultant fees into the final PPA price and ask our selected advisor to assume the risk of no awards. With Edison Energy as our partner, we began stakeholder engagement and education on everything from market fundamentals and possible contract structures to policy implications and accounting guidelines. From there, we formed our strategy together in a democratic fashion, resulting in a request for proposals.
What has your experience been like working as a Steering Committee member, working with both Edison Energy and the broader Consortium group?
As a Steering Committee member, our primary role was to keep the group together and moving forward. That meant representing every campus’s interest – not just my campus, communicating widely and often, figuring out solutions to the many issues collaboratively, not taking “no” for an answer, and staying optimistic and cheerful through the process. Each Steering Committee member brought a different skillset and approach to the table and the collective effort was exponentially greater. Edison brought their vast and comprehensive experience with LSRE procurement to the team. Edison’s advisory role and help with RFP development, bid evaluation, and analyses have been invaluable to the success of this Consortium.
How did COVID-19 impact the Consortium’s efforts or timeline?
While this year has offered nothing but the unexpected, we are fortunate that COVID-19 did not substantially impact the Consortium’s progress or process. Of course, each campus continues to cope with both clear campus impacts and further unknowns; administrations, faculty, and staff have full plates and then some. Nonetheless, the Consortium kept pace, remembering the long-term nature of our goals.
What has been the most difficult aspect of consortium-based procurement?
At many points, I felt we were too big and unwieldy. But in the end, our size became our advantage. While many voices at the table can seem overwhelming at times, it was the collective skills, preferences, considerations, and collaboration that brought us forward.
Would you participate in another consortium process like NY HE, given this experience?
Yes, perhaps for renewable heating options.
What would you say to a higher education institution considering large scale offsite renewables procurement?
Go for it! Talk to others who have walked this path before. Being able to reach out to fellow colleagues at MIT during the early days of this process was tremendously helpful to me and we are now happy to pass it forward to others ready for this arduous but rewarding journey.
Click here to explore more from our Visionary Voices: Perspectives in Energy Series or join our email list to keep up to date with the latest insights from the people who are making it happen.