Children of the sun

'Sun worshippers' clad in college uniforms, not swimsuits, relish the energy innovation project at Thammasat's Rangsit campus, a marriage of student activism and conservation

Thammasat University, one of the nation's oldest academic institutes with a reputation for championing academic activism, is blazing a new trail by making its 2,400-rai Rangsit campus self-sufficient in terms of energy usage.

The university also operates six solar-powered buses, offers rent-a-bikes to promote pollution-free travel, harvests organic vegetable gardens and even has a "Solar Coffee" shop where half the electricity costs are offset by power produced on-campus.

The project conforms to the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, designed to show how peaceful living and prosperity can coexist.

In harnessing the power of nature from the solar panels mounted on the roofs of various campus buildings, the students literally get to be immersed in their studies, according to Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, the college's vice rector for administration and sustainability.

They are taught that a sense of social responsibility goes a long way. The more they invest in renewable energy, the less pollution they produce, he says.

The university has launched a number of environmental campaigns but its energy innovation project (with solar power as the star) is among the most ambitious, and the results have been encouraging. For a start, the campus has slashed its electricity bills.

It began experimenting with solar power last year to get a feel for how the panels would pan out. The first batch was fitted on a campus rooftop last July as part of a Public Private Partnership (PPP) deal with Solartron, a public company. They began producing electricity in October and -- hey, presto -- were rolled out campus-wide.

"We invited a private company [Solartron, before it listed] to invest in the project, and we agreed to buy electricity from it at a 10% discount from the normal rate charged by the electricity authorities," Mr Prinya said.

The savings were diverted to a sustainability fund established to support other university projects, he said.

One nagging concern is students' lack of awareness about the importance of protecting the environment and conserving energy, he added.

To combat such lethargy, Mr Prinya and his team decided to take the students and their parents on a private tour of the solar panels, which are hidden out of regular view.

The university also launched a recycling project to further raise awareness.

"We offer discounts to people who don't require plastic bags or boxes when they shop at university stores," he said.

A mini shuttle bus runs on clean energy harnessed from solar panels mounted on its roof at the Rangsit campus.

"We encourage them to bring their own meal boxes to the cafeteria [and] we hand out reusable water bottles to curb plastic wastage."

According to the vice rector, the campus saw its electricity bills drop 4% last year from 2015, which meant savings of 3 million baht a month. He anticipates the energy savings will keep growing in the coming years.

Currently, the solar panels produce up to 5 megawatts of electricity a year. If the university reaches its three-year goal, total electricity usage on campus will fall by almost a third as of 2020, Mr Prinya said.

The push to go green stems from the university's recognition of the threat posed by climate change.

"Climate change is getting worse, as you can see with all the natural disasters occurring globally," the professor said. "We don't have a moment to lose. We must race ahead with these environmental campaigns -- and clean energy is a great start."

"Thammasat decided to take action before it's too late," he added.

Initially, the solar project faced resistance from school administrators who doubted it would trim energy bills but has since won their approval.

"Although the panels were fixed on rooftops, making them hard to see, the benefits can be felt on the ground and have exceeded our expectations," Mr Prinya said.

One of Rangsit's next moves will be to introduce a similar clean energy initiative at the school's Tha Prachan and Lampang campuses. Mr Prinya said other universities and organisations should not be afraid to hop on the same bandwagon.

"If Thammasat can do this, other universities can too," he said. "We are happy to share our experience and knowledge."

One day a group of sophomore law students sat together and discussed their latest Life and Sustainability class. Known as TU103 this subject is compulsory for freshmen and optional thereafter. The content focuses on sustainable living, such as building environmentally low-impact homes or using energy-saving materials.

"Although solar-powered roofing isn't the full answer to preserving the environment, it's a solid start," said one of the students. "It's far better than producing electricity from other sources of energy."

A statue of Dr Puey Ungphakorn, the 10th rector, watches over Thammasat University as it makes strides towards being energy-sufficient.

The university has made concerted efforts to promote the use of clean energy, they said.

"We even grow our own organic vegetables at the garden here," said one young lady.

"It's better than having a rose garden. At least we get to eat the vegetables we grow."

The sustainability classes serve as de facto demonstration labs showing students how to make the most of their waste, a useful skill that can be applied to daily life, said Napat Shivatananesh, a science and technology student. But the university should also focus on wastewater treatment to reinforce its commitment to promoting a greener society, Ms Napat said. Other students cheered her comments.

The students said they suspect the poor sanitary condition of the water resources on campus is to blame for the foul odour emanating from various locations, despite aerators being put to work to improve the wastewater.

The students agreed that while the clean-energy projects were advancing well, wastewater should be next on the list of issues to be addressed.

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