At the top of a 25-foot ladder, high above the deserted campus below, a handful of construction workers are putting the finishing touches on one of USC’s largest sustainability projects to date. The Galen Athletic Center’s 50,000 square-foot solar field is a significant step forward for the university’s environmental efforts, and it came together in the midst of a pandemic.

“Obviously I don’t think any of us could have seen what was coming with the COVID situation,” said Paul Neidermire, general manager of the Galen Center, “but it’s a testament to how great of a team it was that we were able to work through these tough times, and do it safely and responsibly.”

The project broke ground in early February, before many people had even heard of COVID-19. Just over a month later, the university was forced to move most of its operations online. It was only when the city of L.A. deemed construction an “essential business” that the project was able to move forward — but not without some significant changes in protocol.

“Every morning, the crew goes through the rules,” said Zelinda Welch, USC’s energy manager who is overseeing the project. “If you feel sick, let us know. If you feel unsafe, you can walk away from the job.”

The university’s project teams have worked closely with the contractor, Morrow-Meadows, to ensure that all public health standards are being met, including masks for everyone on the job site and an ample supply of hand sanitizer. In keeping with social distancing guidelines, elevator rides are limited to two people at a time, and everyone must maintain a distance of at least six feet apart (a mandate made easier by the roof’s open expanse).

Despite the limitations of the pandemic — some days, as few as three construction workers are on the job — the project remains on budget and on schedule. When it is finished, it will represent a major milestone in the university’s 2020 Sustainability Plan, which Dr. Carol Folt, president of USC, has prioritized since taking office last summer.

“Both the public health crisis and climate change are interconnected,” Folt said in a Zoom meeting held as a virtual commemoration of Earth Day. “I am so inspired to see USC taking a strong interdisciplinary approach towards working together on important issues like these.”

In addition to the solar field, the university is undertaking a number of other environmental projects, including steps toward carbon neutrality, sustainable education and waste reduction.

“The problem of climate change is an existential threat that will take an unprecedented level of coordination and teamwork and innovation,” Folt said.

Still, the solar project isn’t only the product of the president’s vision. It’s something many students have been asking for for quite some time.

“There have been protests for a number of years saying, ‘We want more solar,’” Welch said, “and now it’s happening.”

Earlier this year, the Galen Center held its first “zero waste game,” diverting more than 90% of its waste and garnering a “Most Improved” award from PAC-12 for its steps toward sustainability. Neidermire said the center is also retrofitting the LED lights in the arenas and practice courts, and is considering having all the back-of-house lights converted to LED as well.

“Although the solar project is the marquee project, it’s all part of a bigger effort,” he said.

The roof installation includes 1,500 solar modules that will reduce 318 tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to USC Sustainability. It is on track for completion in mid-May, at which point it will go through final permits and approvals from the city. Until then, everyone involved will continue to abide by enhanced precautions to protect the workers and prevent the spread of the virus.

“We have a dedicated staff member that does dedicated visits at different points in time to make sure all the rules are being followed,” Welch said.

When finished, the solar project will provide 15% of Galen’s energy usage during a typical year. And although there is no official word about when students will be able to return to campus to enjoy the upgraded arena, it remains a major point of pride for everyone involved.

“It’s a group coming together and reshaping how the university addresses sustainability,” Welch said. “And it really is a beautiful roof.”