Colleges & Universities Share Advice on Financing On-Campus Renewable Energy Installations at AASHE

Here at the AASHE Conference campus leaders from diverse backgrounds have gathered to share their knowledge, experience and advice on a variety of topics — among them the perennial question of “I want to help my campus adopt sustainable energy practices, but how do I pay for it?” In this session, representatives from schools that have established successful programs divulged their strategies to the program participants.

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The first speaker, Lowell Rasmussen of University of Minnesota Morris, gave examples based on UMM’s pioneering biomass installation and their current and future wind turbines. He pointed out that despite the fact that many people are afraid of making the big changes required for moving to renewable energy, maintaining the status quo may in fact be the “riskier” path. Traditional energy practices are dependent on outside sources, which means that both procurement and prices are outside a college or university’s control. On-site generation is not only able to save a college money in the long run at current rates, but also protects the campus from unknown complications that may arise in the future as traditional energy sources (such as coal) become more hotly contested. Among the ideas he favors for financing renewable installations are: internal loan pools, conservation ESCOs, power purchasing agreements, soliciting external investors. He advised college representatives or business officers to reference NACUBO‘s book Financing Sustainability on Campuses.

Up next was Cindy Shea, from America’s oldest public university: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. UNC is in a unique position when it comes to energy, because they have buildings that range in age from over 200 years old to brand new.  As a state school, all of the new buildings must adhere to recently-implemented North Carolina regulations requiring they be 30% more efficient than ASHRAE standards. They began their move towards renewable energy in 2003 with a student-led initiative to start a Green Energy Fee, which raises $200k per year. These funds, which are controlled by the student-led Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, are then leveraged to secure additional grant monies and state funding.

Like UMM, UNC has chosen to invest in on-campus projects rather than offsets or buying “green” power from external vendors. These projects include a solar thermal system on one of the residence halls, geothermal wells, photovoltaic arrays on new parking deck, bio-diesel fuel for on-campus shuttles, and a large-scale energy-efficiency campaign begun in 2009 to retrofit buildings and also promote environmentally conscious behavioral modifications. For these low-cost measures, the investment of $150 in energy management staff and media yielded a savings of $4 million dollars annually. Shea advocates starting with what is cheap and easy to do, and investing the savings that result in more expensive projects.

The final speaker, William Leahy of Eastern Connecticut State University, made the point that when embarking on a large-scale endeavor, a college or university rarely uses only one kind of financing. The recent economic downturns further complicate this delicate balancing act. Although many schools have signed on with the ACUPCC,  he said, the question is how to find the right variety of sources in the right combination to  fund the needed investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy to meet the 2050 carbon neutrality.Leahy listed several broad categories of funding sources that each campus can and should draw from to find that perfect balance: internal sources such as endowment funds and alumni gifts, student fees, revolving loan funds, grants, rebates & incentives, bonds, leases, performance contracting and renewable energy credits. While the dollar amount of each receipt may be seem small in comparison  to the total cost of a renewable insteallation, by using some or even all of these sources in coordination, a college or university will be able to achieve a lot more than if they focus solely on one individual funding source.