UCLA is currently en route to its goal of producing zero landfill waste by 2020. That goal is at the risk of hitting a roadblock if the Undergraduate Students Association Council Facilities Commission goes ahead and wastes money on expensive solar umbrellas.
Using funding from The Green Initiative Fund, the commission is drafting a proposal on installing three solar umbrellas across campus. The umbrellas will contain outlets and USB ports for students to charge their laptops and phones. The next step is for the Facilities Commission to meet with Roy Champawat, director of Associated Students UCLA Student Union, to decide on a convenient location for the umbrellas. However, aside from their aesthetic design and apparent eco-friendliness, there’s not much else of merit about the umbrellas. They’re expensive, and it doesn’t seem like they’ll be particularly useful.
The Facilities Commission should avoid installing solar umbrellas because they lack the return on investment to make them a worthwhile purchase. Instead, funds from TGIF should be used for projects that have a more tangible, pronounced effect on UCLA’s environmental footprint.
The commission plans on putting two mobile charging umbrellas at Kerckhoff patio and one laptop charging solar umbrella in the John Wooden Center. One of the umbrellas the committee plans on installing is the Powersol from ZON Technology. For the price of $2,095, it has the ability to charge three mobile phones at once.
Admittedly, the umbrella is stylish and sleek, but the practicality of installing it comes into question. If you take a look at the students working in Kerckhoff patio, most of them are either writing in notebooks or using their laptops. For obvious reasons, no one chooses to complete assignments on their phone. Besides, students tend to charge their phones using their laptops, a more important power source.
And it is not as though there is an urgent need for a charging point in the Kerckhoff patio. Students are currently managing quite well without any solar umbrellas. Anyone who wants to charge their phone can walk 300 feet to Powell Library for plenty of available plug points. They can even go into Ackerman Union which, also courtesy of TGIF, has solar panels installed on its roof.
A laptop charger is more essential for students, and the commission has the solution for that: One of the umbrellas in the plan will be able to charge laptops but at the overblown cost of $8,000 to $10,000. Given the fact that TGIF brings in around $300,000 every year, this single installation would account for about three percent of the fund’s annual budget.
If that’s not enough, the committee has chosen John Wooden Center’s second floor balcony as the location for the laptop charging umbrella. The first question that comes into mind about this placement is, “There’s a second floor balcony at the John Wooden Center?” In all likelihood, nearly no one knows about this location, especially as a study space. The Facilities Commission is well aware of this fact and wants to promote the balcony as a study area through the installation of an umbrella. But it would be unreasonable to expect students to suddenly start showing up there just because there’s an edgy solar umbrella that can charge a laptop.
Facilities Commissioner Sandra Rhee said that the commission is in the process of trying to get quotes from different companies that are more economically appropriate. But even if the cost is brought down considerably, it remains to be seen if anyone will turn up at the Wooden Center to study.
And while one of the key incentives for taking up solar projects is to save money in the long term, these solar umbrellas fail that benchmark too. Take the Powersol mobile charging umbrella, for example. Charging a single mobile device for about four hours every day would cost about 84 cents of electricity per year, using a standard electrical outlet. Assuming that students excitedly flock to the umbrella and use all three of its USB ports to charge their phones for 12 hours every day for one year, the Facilities Commission would be saving all of $7.56 per year on electricity costs.
While Rhee pointed out that the umbrella has a warranty of nearly five years, no calculus is needed to see that installing a phone charger that produces a five-year loss of $2,057 is an unsound economic decision. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that a student without anything to charge won’t end up sitting at the table, cutting away precious cents from the yearly savings. More likely than not, a single student or group will end up sitting at the umbrella and use only one charging port at a time.
This isn’t to say that the Facilities Commission shouldn’t be pursuing avenues towards making UCLA a more sustainable community. It’s just that those avenues shouldn’t produce a loss over $2,000. By contrast, when solar panels were installed on the roof of Ackerman, it was projected that savings would total about $1.5 million by 2037. That’s the kind of sustainability the committee should aim for.
The committee should draft projects that would more evenly benefit the UCLA community. A project like the solar umbrella installation should be avoided, considering that TGIF has surpluses every year in order to fund projects that cost more than its annual allocation of $300,000. In light of the pressing issue of the California drought, TGIF can help fund projects that make the campus more self-sufficient. Projects such as water recycling or just more efficient faucets are proposals that should be prioritized. We’re going to need larger strides, especially if UCLA is to achieve the ambitious goal of zero waste by 2020.
But if the Facilities Commission doesn’t realize the inefficiency of its plan, its oversized and overpriced phone and laptop chargers will be an unnecessary drain on student fees meant for meaningful sustainability projects.