07/21/2011 04:08 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2011

From Intern to Solar Champion

It's intern season here in Washington. The sweltering city is filled with dynamic, ready-to-impress young people working in the powerful halls of Congress and the humble offices of SmartPower.

Each year our intern team gets better than the last. This year, Chandler Clay, Mark Ellis and Sarah Kiner are raising the bar even higher. But now, as SmartPower starts to see some of our former interns enter the working world, the bar raises ever higher.

Take Joshua Kaplan. When Josh, then a junior at American University in Washington, D.C., began his internship at SmartPower, my first comment to him was that we should work together to get solar all over AU's campus.

Josh agreed -- and now, working as an assistant to AU's director of sustainability, Chris O'Brien, he is making it a reality. In fact, AU is now the home of the largest solar installation in Washington, D.C.

The school recently finished installing more than 2,150 solar photovoltaic panels on six different buildings. There are also 174 solar thermal energy panels set for installation on four campus buildings this month. Those will provide "hot showers to more than 2,000 students living on campus and hot water to the university's largest dining hall," and will comprise the largest urban solar hot water system on the east coast of the United States.

The school is taking a variety of other measures to promote renewable energy, including installing a wind turbine on campus and using a generator that runs on cooking oil from the cafeteria. But the solar panels will do some really heavy lifting:

Electricity from the solar photovoltaic panels will avoid more than 557 tons of carbon per year, the equivalent of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from 57,500 gallons of gasoline annually, or nearly 1 million gallons over twenty years.

In a word, incredible.

The best part is how much sense this makes for the school's bottom line. AU says its energy bills will actually decrease as soon as the solar system goes online:

The projects are financed through power purchase agreements with Washington Gas Energy Services and Skyline Innovations, each of which owns and installs its respective system, and sells the resulting energy to American University through long term contracts for twenty and ten years respectively.

Of particular note is that AU had to put no money down to install all this solar, yet the school reaps huge benefits.

Leadership by example is one of the most effective ways to encourage others to buy solar power. AU is clearly providing the leadership. Now it's time for all U.S. colleges to follow AU's example.

Brian Keane is the President of SmartPower, a non-profit marketing organization funded by private foundations to help build the clean energy marketplace by helping the American public become smarter about their energy use.