The Collegian
Monday, May 20, 2024

How the University of Richmond's Collaboration with AES Corporation Promotes Greenwashing

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

During the fall 2022 semester, the University of Richmond made The Princeton Review’s list of the top 50 Green Colleges, ranking at #21

With the tremendous work University Facilities and Rethink Waste have done in diverting waste from landfills, holding clothing drives, providing compostable utensils available at dining locations and even having electric vehicle charging stations, UR’s ranking does not come as a surprise. That is why it is frustrating to see UR’s collaboration with AES Corporation, an American-based multinational utility and power generation company that is willing to achieve its energy goals at the risk of minority groups. 

Most notably, AES’ coal plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico, which opened in 2002, results in numerous health risks for residents in the area that are expected to last generations. A study conducted by the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Public Health found that since 2002, the rate of chronic diseases like cancer and respiratory illnesses has doubled. Not only have the air pollutants from the coal ash caused generational asthma and other respiratory illnesses, but AES’ placement of their plant over the South Coast Aquifer has tainted the island’s main drinking water supply. Although AES is closing the plant and leaving Puerto Rico within the next few years, the damage to the community will last long after they depart. As shown in the documentary "El Poder del Pueblo,"which tells the story of AES in this Puerto Rican community and the resilience the residents have shown by building solar panels, coal ash can last years in the ground while continuing to have harmful impacts. 

Moreover, AES is willing to spread illnesses, reduce life expectancies and cause long-term respiratory problems for children all in order to achieve their yearly profit goals. Recently, they took on a new project, in collaboration with the UR, to build a 500-megawatt utility scale solar plant in Spotsylvania, out of which 20 megawatt will be used for UR energy. The Spotsylvania Solar Project site, or “Spider Solar,” will encompass 6,350 acres, with 3,500 acres dedicated to the massive solar panels. 

Your first thought is probably: “Wow! That’s an amazing step in the right direction towards increased clean energy.” That is exactly what I thought too, and it makes sense considering UR truly has taken some great strides in reducing waste and promoting sustainable habits; however, the reality is that this massive facility may actually do more harm than good. 

Specifically, to build the 47,000 solar panels that the facility will have, AES and its partner sPower have cut down hundreds to thousands of acres of carbon-reducing trees. Additionally, the plant will take up far more land than a fossil-fueled power plant, whilst generating the same amount of power. The immense deforestation that has been carried out, and will continue to occur for the next few years until the plant’s completion, has led to a disruption of the countless habitats and ecosystems that exist across these thousands of acres. 

Many renewable energy advocates argue that “flat roofs, parking lots and non-forested land” are better alternatives to major solar plants like the one in Spotsylvania. This would allow for an increase in sustainable energy, whilst being mindful of the deforestation, runoff and habitat destruction that occurs from massive construction sites. 

For those who may not be familiar with the term “greenwashing,” it is a term for when companies convey false impressions regarding their sustainability. “Greenwashing” is a play on words from the term “whitewashing,” and it allows corporations to capitalize off of the demand for environmentally friendly products. A famous example of this was in 2020 when Coca-Cola committed to begin having bottles with 100% recycled plastic, even though they are world’s No. 1 plastic polluter and have earned this title multiple times. 

Members of the UR community recognize themselves as promoting a sustainable campus, but administration partners with a corporation that spreads toxic greenhouse emissions leading to generational chronic diseases and takes on a project that has resulted in deforestation, habitat disruption and water runoff; this is a prime example of greenwashing. We, as a campus community, must do better. There are possible solutions for transitioning to clean renewable energy that do not lead to other forms of environmental destruction. Instead of a massive project like the one in Spotsylvania, UR can adopt forms of clean energy through geothermal heating and cooling, rooftop solar panels and wind turbines, and on-campus electric transportation.  Collaborating with AES and playing a role in the Spotsylvania Solar Project is taking one step forward and three steps back in the journey to becoming an environmentally friendly university. 

Contact contributor Sumaya Fawaz at sumaya.fawaz@richmond.edu. 

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