USC's lack of solar has caused a stir amongst environmentally-conscious students for several years now, culminating each year in the annual "Go Solar Rally." The rally, organized by Environmental Core, USC's environmental activist and advocacy organization, brings together students to protest in a circle around Tommy Trojan, collect signatures on petitions, and visit administrators' offices to deliver petitions, demands, and general sentiments of frustration. A university official takes the petitions, and then, a year later, the process repeats. Despite over four years of this cycle, USC still has solar-free roofs.
With solar panels becoming increasingly popular and affordable, USC students are understandably frustrated with this outcome, believing it to be the result of an apathetic administration. However, according to Mark Ewalt, USC's Director of Administrative Operations, getting solar at USC is much more complicated than the students versus administration battle it often appears to be.
"We can have solar, but we don't receive any of the tax benefits from it, we cannot keep the energy that the solar provides, and so, at the end of the day, we don't have any of the financial benefits that would make solar financially feasible," Ewalt said.
As a tax-exempt institution, USC doesn't receive any of the perks, such as tax breaks, that make solar worthwhile for many other buildings in Southern California. Per city and state requirements, installing solar panels on any of the buildings on USC's campus built more than five years ago would also require the university to upgrade the building's entire electrical system, an energy-intensive and cost-intensive endeavor.
Ewalt also explained that with the current energy demand of USC, putting solar panels on every building on campus would only fulfill 10 percent of the university's energy costs.
"Given the amount of investment we're talking about for solar, for ten percent reduction in energy costs, it just doesn't play itself out on any front. And that's why, in a nutshell, the university doesn't pursue solar," he said.
Hypothetically, putting solar on USC's brand new USC Village could be more feasible than installing it on older buildings on campus. By California law, the infrastructure in the USC Village is solar ready, and with the bill for the Village footed by donors and USC's endowment, the cost of putting solar panels in the Village wouldn't add to students' cost of attendance.
"When [the university village was built] everybody wanted everything in the USC Village," Ewalt explained. "So within that environment, [the administration] weighed all of the asks, they weighed everything they needed the property to do, and then they had to slice stuff out to make it work with the funding that had been raised… solar was not considered for that reason."
Even without solar panels, the administration and students alike are still striving to create a culture of sustainability on campus. The USC Sustainability 2030 plan, released this past spring, outlines bold plans for the next two decades, including carbon neutrality across all campus buildings, 90 percent waste diversion, and a 50 percent reduction in water usage by 2030.
The most important thing, Ewalt noted, is that USC becomes more sustainable – whether USC reduces its carbon footprint using solar panels or just greater energy efficiency shouldn't matter. That's why the administration is so hopeful about the Sustainability 2030 plan.
"[The Academic Senate is] focusing on the results instead of the delivery device… if you really want to talk about meaningful change… you need to engage on that level," Ewalt said.
Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, a member of the Environmental Core who spoke to Ewalt alongside the rest of the organization's executive board earlier this semester, agrees with this.
"We've been told that solar panels are not a priority and are not economically feasible for USC at this time and will not be initiated within the next few years, but that it's still good for students to show there's a push towards it – there is still a student push – which is why we're still doing the solar rallies," she said.
Student activists like those in the Environmental Core recognize that creating a more sustainable USC is more complicated than a plan signed by the Academic Senate and an annual rally, but the club wants to ensure USC is pushing itself beyond the bare minimum for sustainable practices.
"[Sustainability at universities] is pushed by grassroots organizations, it is pushed by students, but it needs to be a top-down thing. You need the administration to say, 'Yes this is a priority, yes this is what we're going to do,' in order for it to happen. And we haven't gotten that at USC whatsoever," Shaw-Wakeman said.
The main issues the Environmental Core wants the administration to work towards are greater transparency, carbon neutrality, an overhaul of the Office of Sustainability – including the creation of a permanent, hired position for its director – and solar panels on the Galen Center, USC's biggest roof and its most feasible option for solar.
Ewalt maintains that the best way to create a meaningful push for sustainability at USC is for students to do their research on issues like solar, carbon neutrality, waste diversion before they try to meet with the administration, so that students and administrators can be on the same page as they work together to solve issues of sustainability.
Furthermore, Ewalt noted that students who are interested in sustainability on campus can apply for the Green Engagement Fund (GEF). Any project proposal contributing to greater sustainability on USC's campus – from solar umbrellas to native plant gardens to aquaponics systems – can receive funding.
Environmental Core's next solar rally is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 8, in front of Tommy Trojan. Though the chance of USC implementing solar in the foreseeable future is slim, Shaw-Wakeman remains determined.
"We're doing this for [USC students]… we're doing it because we care about the people on this planet and the people at this school and the people in this community. We're doing it because it's the right thing to do."