Green Universities Helping To Produce Greener Pastures

August 1, 2008       Tom Pope      

Former University of North Carolina Chancellor James Moeser and Vice Chancellor Margaret Jablonksi learn from a student about the solar hot water system on top of the Morrison Residence Hall.

When the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill adds up the yearly savings on green projects, the amount exceeds $365,000. The projects include re-commissioned buildings with sealed ducts, lighting upgrades, controls over boilers, along with energy efficient motors and changes in thermostat nighttime settings.

Nonprofits have been thinking green, and part of it depends on the cost. “When you’ve established your credibility to reduce the emissions, then it’s easier the next time around to gain funding,” said Cynthia Shea, director of the Sustainability Office at UNC. “We’ve been making the case that reducing energy consumption is a wise use of taxpayer dollars and lowers the maintenance costs.”

Shea’s commitment has gone beyond lowering pollutant loads in campus waters to the point where she can show visitors the green roofs and underground cisterns along with infiltration beds and toilets flushed with rain water.

Nonprofits have to be aware of the energy costs and the complex changes coming from many state legislatures. “In North Carolina, the legislature passed a bill last summer that requires all buildings to be 20 percent more energy efficient by 2010,” she said. “They want us to be 30 percent more efficient by 2015 compared to 2003.”

Shea’s office has made a successful case for receiving $1 million a year in upgrades during the past two fiscal years. “We’re challenged to develop an ongoing funding stream,” she said.

Campuses addressing the climate change should look at the whole range of activity that affects all carbon emissions, according to Shea. Implementing standards and educating the employees at all levels is part of the task.

“No one silver bullet exists,” she said. “After you explore all possible conservation techniques, you should introduce renewable strategies because they are more effective.”

Campuses nationwide have launched climate-driven projects that are taking a significant bite out of emissions while they save money, according to a new publication from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). The publication called, Higher Education in a Warming World: The Business Case for Climate Leadership on Campus, lists numerous case studies of business strategies that reduce the greenhouse gases. The report also documents methods of obtaining funds.

The NWF aims to reach a 2 percent a year cut in carbon emissions that would add up to an 80 percent reduction by 2050. Rising levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are blamed for the increased sea levels and global climate changes.

“Universities are more crucial than in the past,” said David Eagan, lead author and staff member of the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The nation’s two-year and four-year colleges and universities have a measurable impact on the economy to the tune of $360 billion annually.

The higher education sector represents about 3 percent of the GDP and around 2 percent of the workforce.

Campus emissions depend on the size and activity of the institution. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has 26 research laboratories in around 300 buildings. Those 26 buildings generate 60 percent of the electrical use.

The carbon footprint is the problem. Eagan explained that the NWF’s goal seeks to lower carbon emissions in several ways. Organizations can attempt to shift from coal to natural gas, or from natural gas to burning woodchips or landfill gas.

When facilities are individually metered, planners can see the specific energy use among building types. The 2006 emissions inventory at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., displayed a wide range in energy intensity between residence halls and non-residence buildings. “Compare the kilowatt hours per square foot,” he said. “That helps to point to the greatest potential savings.”

Does this aid in colleges when fundraising time arrives? “We’re hearing that,” he said. “The message to colleges is that even if they can’t obtain subsidies, they can see a return on the investment quickly to payback the projects.”

Hundreds of colleges are more involved compared to another Eagan report in the 1990s because of increased grants from state and local entities that aid the effort.

One way to set the plan in motion is to hire an energy services company (ESCO). “These companies recover costs and make a profit from the savings of certain projects,” he said. “They offer a Ôturnkey’ operation while the school obtains a continuing savings.”

Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif., put two projects together that helped the overall effort. In one, an installed 191 kilowatt solar photo voltaic array offered shade to 80 stalls in the parking lot. The second, a 360kw natural gas microturbine system was designed. The total effort cost decreased the overall payback time so the campaign became manageable. Two systems reduced campus electricity purchases by 30 percent and cut energy costs by $180,000 each year, according to Eagan. The $4.1-million project cost was helped by over $2 million from state and municipal rebates.

The NWF report indicated that finances could be open-ended, or specified toward feasibility studies, the construction or the equipment involved in the project.

As many as two-thirds of the states list financial incentive programs through Public Benefit Funds. This comes from surcharges on electricity sales that are turned around to become grant dollars for energy efficiency projects. “We’re seeing an encouraging shift in around 22 states that are implementing renewable standards,” said Julian Keniry, senior director of the NWF’s campus and community leadership program in Reston, Va. “In Massachusetts, a goal has been set to purchase 25 percent of energy from local renewable sources.”

She pointed to the national Climate Security Act as another example of how the country is building incentives for organizations that change energy directions.

The university sector can influence the entire society, according to Keniry. “We have anecdotal information from students who have gone on into business and stayed with a part of the environment as a career,” she said.

Businesses like the Ocean Arks International are expanding because of the influence of graduating seniors who apply environmental techniques to clean water and reduce emissions.

The cause directly affects the NWF. “Our audience of anglers, birders, and hunters see firsthand the changes in wildlife surroundings from the climate changes,” she said. “Some changes include the moose in Minnesota who are having reproductive issues.”

The report helps the organization fulfill the mission. Does it help show donors the value? “It’s hard to say whether the activity helps us fundraise,” she said. “In part, our fundraising was responsible for being able to complete the report.”

Will colleges have easier access to funds if climate strategies are used? “Every time I turn around, I see new examples of donors giving specifically to environmental causes with restricted funds aimed for those issues,” she said.

St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., obtained a grant for most of a $1.9-million wind turbine in 2006. The commercial-scale operation sits on college farmlands next to the campus spewing around 6 million Kw hours of electricity each year. That’s one third of the school’s needs and saves around $300,000.

“You’re likely to find fundraising more accessible if you’re successful,” said Pete Sandberg, director of facilities. “There’s an arms race going on in the energy area to help organizations.” Colleges are affecting the communities. “In Northfield, we have a taskforce set up by the mayor to look at heating plants in the downtown area,” he said. “Colleges can have an impact on the public sector and traditional industry.”

Students are assisting colleges with funds. St. Olaf students raised activity fees $4 to invest in renewable energy. “Students are learning to become part of a capital project,” he said. “These students are taking their commitment across the country when they graduate and are then working on boards of other organizations.”

Start with taking an energy inventory. Calculate the present level of gashouse emissions. Plan the amount needed to reduce the total by 2 percent a year. The inventory should look at a snapshot of all emissions-producing activities.

“Much revolves around lighting, the air handling systems, and the buildings,” Sandberg said. “This can’t be done by someone simply turning a wrench, the technology is very sophisticated.” That means setting up systems that control components in the building to handle outside temperature or humidity levels. “The historical methods of managing buildings are no longer enough,” he said.

Many campuses and cities face the growing problems of St. Olaf. Decreases in emissions could be countered by increases in buildings or building space. “Understanding how much energy we use and the potential is a first step,” Sandberg said.

The NWF report shows that reducing emission works, according to author Eagan. “While techniques like solar are still pretty pricey, prices are coming down,” he said. “Organizations can find a lot of help from local grants to bring the costs down.” NPT Tom Pope, a New York City-based journalist writes regarding management issues.

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