Editor’s Note: The reporter for this story has graduated from Pepperdine in April 2023. All reporting in this story was conducted prior to April 2023.
Pepperdine was on the forefront of sustainability efforts with its implementation of the water reclamation system in 1972, according to the Center for Sustainability.
Yet, the University has not implemented a campus-wide renewable energy system similar to its water reclamation infrastructure, based on information from the Center for Sustainability website. Despite its susceptibility to various climate impacts, Pepperdine does not take a stance on climate change to encourage debate, according to past Graphic reporting.
Utilizing solar energy is a “critical” way for Californians, including Pepperdine, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and be more energy independent when faced with climate change impacts, said Severin Borenstein — professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, faculty director of the Energy Institute at Haas and board member of the Board of Governors of the California Independent System Operator.
“If we’re going to actually reduce carbon emissions from the electricity system, and then reduce carbon emissions from other uses by electrifying things, we’re going to need a huge amount of renewable energy,” Borenstein said. “And in the California area, the best source is solar.”
Chief Operating Officer Phil Phillips said Pepperdine does not produce its own solar energy due to wildfire risk and cost of implementation, according to past interviews with the Graphic. Additionally, Chris Doran — professor of Religion and Sustainability and founder of the Sustainability major and minor — said other reasons may include insurance risk and the relationship with the University’s power provider, Southern California Edison.
“Pepperdine, consistent with its history, continues to invest in the sustainability and energy efficiency of its campus,” wrote Nicolle Taylor, vice president and chief business officer at Pepperdine, in an April 24 email to the Graphic.
Pepperdine’s Current Relationship with Renewable Energy
Taylor wrote the University considers its energy sourcing, usage and conservation as well as its power, which serves as a “self-sufficient restoration” for emergencies.
“The University continues to demonstrate a holistic and evolving understanding of energy usage and a collaborative commitment to maximizing energy efficiency,” Taylor wrote.
Taylor wrote the University participates in Southern California Edison’s Clean Power Alliance, in which about 50% of electricity comes from renewable energy sources.
“[Edison’s CPA] is a more reliable and sustainable option for a greater amount of generated alternative power, coupled with a significant reduction in fire risk,” Taylor wrote.
Doran said the University does not seem to ask basic questions about broadening the energy sources the University uses in the first place, such as potential solar installation locations, the role solar would provide for the power grid or ways to be more energy independent from Edison.
Communities with a microgrid — or multiple local renewable energy supplies — can increase their energy resilience, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s just sad that we have a lack of creativity when it comes to thinking about these things,” Doran said. “I’m not really sure why we wouldn’t want to be more energy independent.”
Taylor wrote the University “investigated a small array to power a single-source element” via a plant wall in Eden.
Doran, a main proponent for the opening of this house, said he has “no idea” if the Eden rooftop solar panels are still in use eight years later.
“I would be shocked, actually, if it [Eden PV system] was still in use, in the sense of producing electricity for free,” Doran said.
Taylor did not comment about the status of the solar panels on Eden.
Doran said implementing the solar panels was a part of the original Eden Project plans, and that there was no pushback from the University about installing rooftop solar panels.
The University has invested some of its endowment into renewable energy funds, according to the Energy webpage, and Taylor did not elaborate on this.
Doran said the campus has a diesel backup generator for power outages that powers some shelter-in-place buildings on campus.
“We utilize several on-campus generators to restore such power for limited time periods when needed, which through enhanced technology in fuel, combustion and exhaust treatment, comply with strict regulations on emissions and use,” Taylor wrote.
Fire and Insurance Risks
Installing solar energy can diversify one’s power grid to be more resilient against wildfires and public safety power shut offs, said Doran and Jerry Vandermeulen, fire safety liaison for the City of Malibu and retired firefighter. Vandermeulen did not comment on Pepperdine’s solar use specifically.
“Having a renewable energy grid — a microgrid of sorts — and battery storage only allows us to be more resilient during those times,” Doran said.
There are also many risks that solar panels pose, Taylor wrote.
“Solar panels are extremely challenging in high fire severity zones like our region and can render properties uninsurable when installed because of the increased fire risk: blown debris caught under panels, inability to turn off power generation in emergencies, etc.,” Taylor wrote. “This reality pushed us to consider other ways to access alternative energy sources.”
The solar panel industry, also known as the photovoltaic industry, is “pretty heavily regulated,” Vandermeulen said.
“There’s a very, very, very small incidence of that happening [panels catching fire],” Vandermeulen said.
Vandermeulen said inspectors must do an in-person inspection and many city departments, including the fire department and fire company, must sign off on it.
“There’s a lot of checks and balances through the fire department, through building and safety, and everything has to be done to specifications of the electrical code and all that, so they [solar panels] are actually pretty safe,” Vandermeulen said.
When there is a public-safety power shutoff, Vandermeulen said solar panels will continue to generate electricity but are cut off from the circuit, as a safety mechanism.
To prevent one’s roof catching fire, Vandermeulen said to ensure the gap between the roof and the panels is free of debris, such as highly-flammable pine needles.
Additionally, Vandermeulen said homes with rooftop solar panels must leave room for firefighters to move around or cut a hole in the roof if there is an internal fire structure to release the hot air and smoke. There are also some solar panel systems with quick-release mechanisms.
The state of California requires roofs to be made of the least-combustible materials possible — known as a Class A Roof — and solar panels and its mounting hardware must also match the combustible rating of the roof, Vandermeulen said.
The Solar Rights Act of 1978and its amendments state homeowners associations and local governments cannot “unreasonably restrict” individuals from installing rooftop solar panels, according to the Energy Policy Initiatives Center.
“Everybody has the right to put solar on their house,” Vandermeulen said. “Cities can’t drag their feet on it. They can’t charge exorbitant amounts. They have to make it as easy as they can, within reason.”
Doran, who has lived on campus for about 14 years and whose wife served as the president of the Baxter Faculty Residences Homeowners Association, said the University turned down the push for faculty to install rooftop solar on their residences because it would be incompatible with their insurance.
Taylor did not comment about installing solar panels on faculty houses.
Additionally, Doran said there was discussion several years ago about Pepperdine potentially installing solar panels onto an outdoor parking lot covering at Drescher.
Taylor did not comment about installing solar panels over a parking lot covering at Drescher.
Cost for Installation
If Pepperdine were to install its own solar panels, Borenstein said the University would have to consider two methods: utilizing federal tax credits and cutting out Edison entirely.
“When universities install solar, they are avoiding paying those [power provider] prices,” Borenstein said.
Borenstein said installing batteries and cutting the metaphorical cord is a way to become independent of a power provider, but it would be “incredibly costly and incredibly complicated to live with.”
Doran said the cost of solar energy is “far more competitive,” which is why it has gained popularity among homeowners.
“For a number of years, California and the federal government had programs to help assist and subsidize the cost of those things, so I’ve been curious about whether we actually investigated what the cost formally was,” Doran said.
Taylor did not comment about the economic benefits associated with installing on-campus solar panels.
In terms of federal tax credits, Borenstein said universities may have a “more complicated time” because of their nonprofit status. With this method, a third-party company may own the solar panels and take the tax credit.
Because Pepperdine has a great deal of indoor space, Pepperdine would require a great deal of solar panels, which is a “space and cost problem,” said Graham Beattie, assistant professor of Economics at Loyola Marymount University.
“Assuming everything went smoothly, they would be in the red — they would be losing money on the deal for the first 10 years or so — and then start gaining money,” Beattie said.
This may be saving the University more money in energy costs from the power provider, but Borenstein said other customers who use the same provider may face more financial burden because the costs — without Pepperdine’s financial input — are redistributed into their bills.
Timing, Beattie said, is another point of consideration.
“There’s a bit of a tricky problem that goes on when we think about installing your own panels, which is that the technology is improving quickly,” Beattie said.
If Pepperdine had installed solar panels a few years ago, Beattie said the panels would not have been as efficient; however, as soon as an organization commits to solar energy, it can “start reaping the benefits faster.”
“[If it’s] assumed that there were no environmental benefits, it’s not a terrible investment,” Beattie said.
Beattie said Pepperdine producing its own energy should not be an “all-or-nothing variable,” and could consider providing a portion of it themselves.
“If we have the ability to put the money in place and build the infrastructure for it, it’s never going to be perfect, but it’s certainly better than having blackouts,” Doran said.
Purchasing Green Energy and Southern California Edison
Another method to have more beneficial environmental effects without the associated cost of installing solar panels would involve Pepperdine paying “a little bit extra” for Edison to deliver 100% renewable energy from their sources, Beattie said.
“It would effectively function like an environmental, charitable giving by the University because they would be getting the same product and paying more for it to get it, just in a greener way,” Beattie said.
Borenstein said going in this direction will not impact costs for other customers, as installing one’s own solar panels would.
In terms of rates, Borenstein said the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is aware of the rate problem — the rates are much higher than the actual cost of producing and delivering the electricity.
Borenstein said the CPUC is redesigning rates, which may make “solar less financially rewarding.”
In 2021, Edison’s power content label — the breakdown of energy sources — offered between 31.4% to 100% of renewable energy across its four sourcing options, according to the California Energy Commission. Solar power was the largest contributor for each of the renewable categories. Edison’s regular operations ranks No. 97 out of the 151 listed power providers in California.
“Southern California Edison has a very green portfolio overall,” Borenstein said.
Edison declined to comment about large businesses transitioning to greener energy or specifically about Pepperdine’s energy status.
“Having the ability to be more resilient and not just rely on Southern California Edison seems, to me, a worthy goal,” Doran said.
The Clean Power Alliance is a Community Choice Aggregation — programs that purchase electricity in place of investor-owned utilities — that serves the Malibu area with 100% green power, according to the CPA.
“The fact is that your utility [Edison] is pretty darn green, the CCA that you could access is pretty darn green,” Borenstein said. “You’re not going to get much greener, if any greener, by installing rooftop solar.”
In terms of the University’s carbon footprint, Borenstein said Pepperdine should focus on its energy consumption. Pepperdine could implement programs to reduce energy, post signage that explains not to waste energy or be more transparent in campus energy use in halls or buildings.
“If Pepperdine really wants to make a difference, the first thing they should focus on is energy efficiency and reducing their use of energy,” Borenstein said. “Universities are just massively wasteful.”
Last November, California released a plan of policies and actions to have the state reach the goal of carbon neutrality by 2045, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 85%, according to the California Air Resources Board.
Additionally, Assembly Bill 3232 aims to reduce emissions in California buildings, as buildings produce 25% of the state’s emissions, according to the California Energy Commission.
What Other Schools are Doing
Local schools, such as Malibu High School and John L. Webster Elementary School, have rooftop solar panels, said Austin Toyama, sustainability coordinator for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
Toyama said SMMUSD has solar panels on seven elementary schools. The district began a solar power purchase agreement in 2013, where the district received energy credits and offsets for those seven energy systems transported back to the grid. SMMUSD also installed district-owned solar panels on Malibu High School.
In March, Toyama said the school board unanimously approved the district’s switch to 100% renewable energy, sourced from the Clean Power Alliance and delivered by Edison — SMMUSD’s energy supplier. All schools will transition within the next five months.
Toyama said transitioning was especially important since it was in the district’s sustainability plan to utilize 100% renewable energy by 2020.
“The ‘why’ is the big thing,” Toyama said. “The fact [is] it’s in our sustainability plan, and we consider ourselves to be a leader in sustainability in public schools — and all of the environmental reasons.”
Toyama said the district had support from high school students, community members and organizations to go 100% renewable.
In terms of cost, Toyama said the district will pay about $30,000 to 40,000 more per year to transition to all renewable sources. He said the district pays an average of $1.3 million per year for electricity, which is about a 3% increase in their electricity bill.
On the university side, LMU has about 90,000 square feet of solar panels, which produce 1.3 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, according to Green LMU. LMU installed solar panels on three of its largest buildings from 2003 to 2005. At the time, this 81,000-square-foot installation was the largest rooftop solar panel system at a university worldwide, according to Green LMU.
This project cost $4.5 million but was offset by rebates through partnerships with the Southern California Gas Company, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and solar company PowerLight, according to Green LMU. LMU’s actual cost was $325,000, and this solar installation saves LMU an average of$210,000 a year, according to Green LMU.
LMU’s media contacts Mason Stockstill and Kristin Agostoni did not respond to interview requests via email or phone.
Nine colleges and universities in California, including LMU, are part of the EPA’s Green Power Partnership, according to a 2020 report by the Environment Texas Research & Policy Center. As a part of this partnership, the colleges self-report their voluntary renewable energy use and energy produced by institution-owned renewable energy projects.
Commitment to renewables continues into one Churches of Christ university, as Abilene Christian University — a Churches of Christ university in Abilene, Texas, and President Jim Gash’s alma mater — runs entirely on renewable energy and is a member of the Green Power Partnership, according to the report. ACU is one of 41 U.S. colleges or universities that run on 100% or more of renewable energy.
Pepperdine’s Historical Ties to the Oil Industry
Two of Pepperdine’s most generous donor families — Frank and Blanche Seaver of Hydril and Richard Scaife of Gulf Oil — gained their wealth from the oil industries, according to Dean Emeritus of Seaver College David Baird’s book “Quest for Distinction: Pepperdine University in the 20th Century.”
Hydril manufactured specialty parts for oil drilling machinery, Baird wrote in the book.
Baird wrote in the book that Frank wrote Pepperdine College into his will before he died in 1964. He gave $26,360 and his widow, Blanche, gave $160 million. Scaife’s gifts totaled more than $9 million through 1978. Blanche also offered to donate 164 acres of her own property in Palos Verdes to Pepperdine, and Scaife agreed to contribute $500,000 in stock.
Borenstein said oil was not recognized as an environmental problem 100 years ago because nobody understood their use led to greenhouse gas emissions, and today the “vast majority” of people recognize climate change is anthropogenic, even those who are involved in the oil and gas industries.
“[If] a university that was enriched based on the production of fossil fuels — not that they’re guilty of anything necessarily — they might feel more responsibility for doing something about it, now that we all have become aware that this is a real environmental problem,” Borenstein said.
Follow the Graphic on Twitter: @PeppGraphic
Contact Ali Levens via Instagram (@journ.ali.sm) or by email: email@example.com