4 Common Alternative Energy Types in Higher Education (and their Pros and Cons)

A closer look at different types of alternative energy and how they can benefit a college or university. 

There are several strategic reasons for schools to use alternative energy, including reducing energy costs and demand, lowering carbon footprint, and promoting choices that have a positive impact on energy use. Four of the most common types of alternative energy are wind, solar, geothermal, and cogeneration. Schools can play a vital role in supporting the earth and its energy conservation by utilizing these technologies; however, the following pros and cons of each alternative energy type should be considered before implementation on campus.
Wind energy is renewable and sustainable. Wind turbines give off very few greenhouse gas emissions, and the “fuel” for this type of energy is free. It is also very space efficient and is a great visual for promoting support of alternative energy usage.
However, there is a cost trade-off for wind turbines. Even though it can save energy costs in the long run, the cost to purchase and set up a wind turbine can be high. It can also be unpredictable, as wind is not always present and is highly unpredictable. Without wind, there is no energy. Efficient wind turbines are also large in stature and can cause high noise levels and are visually unappealing.


Solar energy is also a renewable and sustainable resource. It gives off zero greenhouse gas emissions and can be usable almost anywhere. Solar energy is very low maintenance and can be placed in spaces that aren’t being utilized. For example, schools can place solar panels on flat roofs of several school buildings.
Solar panels aren’t cheap, however, and can have a high initial cost. Similar to wind, solar is an intermittent power source. In most locations, there is a time of year where the amount of sunlight reaching the panels is far weaker than in its prime season. Solar panels also have a comparatively low power output and are made from rare materials.


Geothermal energy is produced from the heat of the earth, and it is renewable and mostly environmentally friendly. It is very reliable and does not require fuel. There are different types of geothermal energy to suit various needs.
Geothermal energy can have environmental side effects and may have high upfront costs. It needs to be managed to be sustainable and reduces energy usage rather than creates electricity.


Cogeneration is the production of both energy and usable heat from the same machine. It can increase fuel use efficiency and gives a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, air, and water pollution. It is highly effective in cold or mild climates. It is one of the most cost beneficial techniques of lowering carbon emissions for heating.
Cogeneration is not actually considered a renewable energy. There must be a match of heating and electricity needs for cogeneration to be useful. The capital and maintenance costs for cogeneration are higher than purchasing power.


Many colleges and universities are moving towards different avenues of alternative energy to help protect the environment, improve finances, and encourage students to make environmentally conscious choices. There are many factors to consider about the different types of alternative energy, but ultimately schools must choose the resource that is best for their staff and students and that best cares for the environment. Project conditions are unique for each project and it is encouraged to employ a trusted design professional to help you evaluate what is best for your situation.
#improvingworlds #peoplefirstplaces #alterativeenergy #sustainability 

Jason Baker, PE, LEED AP
Mechanical Engineer