In a neighborhood where painting your door a different color requires approval from a presidentially appointed commission, Georgetown Energy is aiming to permanently change the view of dozens of houses – from the sky.

Georgetown Energy, a student consultancy devoted to helping residents convert to solar electricity, is heading a monumental solar project that involves turning 43 quintessential student townhouse residences to solar electricity in the midst of Washington DC’s historic Georgetown district. Although it is a long-term project to be enjoyed by the generations after many of the current members of the group have graduated, Georgetown Energy students believe that the rewards of such an innovative project are well worth the effort.

What magic surrounding solar coaxed students to become involved so profoundly?  First, there is a substantial payback for the investment. In a solar lease contract signed between Georgetown University, which owns the student townhouses, and Solar City, a leading national solar installation company, adding 96.6 kW of solar capacity to 43 townhouses will require an initial investment of about $164,000, much less than if the University were to purchase the solar panels. Although Georgetown Energy has partnered with SolarCity for this project and used its solar lease scheme as a model, the project will be offered to various installers at its final stages. In the innovative solar lease scheme, the University will “lease” the roof of each townhouse to the installer, which will design, own, and operate a solar photovoltaic system on each townhouse.  The installer will then sell the electricity produced from each solar project to the residents of the townhouse at a lower price than the traditional competing utility. Savings increase every year and over the 20 years duration of the solar lease contract, students would save a total of $458,856 in their electricity cost. After the contract is over, the student body can decide whether to buy the panels at a low price.

Indeed, another charming aspect of the proposal is that everything is student-owned. Originating from the need to allocate a 3.4 million dollar defunct student endowment, the solar investment will take up only a portion of the available fund and coexist with other student proposals as well as generate profit. Ideally, Georgetown Energy sees the proceeds creating a fund for related projects to further environmental awareness and energy studies on campus.

Is there anything else in it for the university, the students, and the DC area? Sol Systems, a strong force in the fight for better solar incentives in DC, believes so. Not only is being involved in such a movement ideal preparation for a career in renewable energy (two recent graduates and former members of Georgetown Energy actually work at Sol Systems), but there is much potential for the greater DC area too. Of course, cleaner air for the district tops the list. It may even attract more students interested in environmental and energy issues and demonstrate the feasibility of clean energy investments, creating a virtuous cycle of environmental awareness and action in the university community. Perhaps the project may even set an example of a successful clean energy investment that some students may follow individually in the future. Lastly, it is a modern display of service to the community, the crux of the founding Jesuit ideals of Georgetown University.

What stage is the project at right now? In April 2011, a student commission voted in support of the proposal. Now Georgetown Energy students are working with University officials on the details. These include contractual issues, billing mechanisms, pricing, and structural and electrical issues with the houses. The Georgetown Energy students are learning some concrete skills needed for evaluating any type of construction investment. The work done from June-August 2011 will culminate in a final recommendation to be handed to the University on September 1st after which Georgetown Energy students will have to persuade the rest of the student body off their feet for a concluding student referendum and choose from final proposals from competing vendors and permitting.  If all goes well, the battle will be won one year from today. The panels will be constructed in Fall 2012 and convert ordinary sunrays to a unique opportunity for revenue and intellectual growth – truly magic!