Imagine you’re Keith Burnett, looking out of your Firth Court window down on the Octagon, its roof glittering in the sunlight as the array of solar panels beam the sunlight back in your direction... Isn’t it fantastic that this University is committed to tackling the climate crisis, and doing so in such a public way, raising awareness and attracting waves of students, delighted at this ethical demonstration?
A couple of weeks back, I received a copy of this University’s current investment portfolio. Sheffield has invested approximately £937k in two large UK renewable energy companies. Following on from the November 2015 announcement that they would be divesting from fossil fuels, our University is making a noteworthy contribution to the financial and social viability of renewable energy, and unviability of fossil fuels. So what else can Sheffield do to stay ahead of the curve?
One of the barriers that has proven particularly difficult to overcome is that energy systems are controlled in incredibly hierarchical ways. In effect, this means that the CEOs who profit from fossil fuels are able to perpetuate their dominance and distribution, while the masses have little influence yet by and large face their diverse destructive impacts.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In 2013, a wave of German municipalities including the city of Hamburg renationalised their grids, instigating financial incentives to renewables generation. In Sheffield a community group — Sheffield Renewables — funded by local people have installed renewable technology across the city.
So what should our University be doing to feed into this to help create an energy system which is in the control of those who by and large use it?
Well it could start by giving some control over the University’s own energy generation over to students. Students at this University have actively and successfully campaigned on climate change, and they are part of a Students’ Union which has sustainability as one of its core values. In fact, there is a very recent example of this working successfully. At SOAS, the University provided funds for a student group to create an energy cooperative — UniSolar — to install solar panels on a prominent university building, with the money generated by the project in the hands of students to reinvest in more panels in the future.
And something similar could be done in Sheffield. The Carbon Neutral University recently produced a report saying that for £54,000, a solar array could be put on the roof of the SU building. Logistically this has proven difficult, but other buildings could be potential sites for a similar cost.
Solar panels on the Octagon anyone?
Moreover, this could be as part of a process of creating a pot of money the purpose of which is to regularly invest in renewable infrastructure. Imagine a £100,000 student fund, topped up at regular intervals, to be spent on renewable university infrasturcture. Ideally the University would commit to putting a specific amount in - say every two years. Or alternatively, savings made by not having to purchase energy and by paying for carbon could be reinvested back into the fund.
Such an investment would reduce our carbon emissions and help the University to further separate itself from the fossil fuel industry. It would be a powerful, visible and public statement that the University is leading the charge to a low-carbon future that is not only safe, but distributes control in a fair way. After all, don’t we want students and staff to work together to co-produce solutions for the University?