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Business Officer Magazine
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At UNC, Students Fund Their Own Environmental Efforts

In less than a decade, student-led sustainability projects at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have reached a $1 million milestone, and include a residence hall’s solar hot water system and geothermal wells for an education center.

By Carolyn Elfland

Not long after the calendar flipped to the new millennium, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) were making it known that renewable energy needed a presence on campus. A student-led green energy campaign resulted in a referendum, as part of the 2003 campus elections, proposing a $4-per-semester student fee to support renewable energy. When 74.5 percent of the student body voted in favor, the UNC Student Congress created the Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee (RESPC). (Read "Conservation Calibration" in the October issue of Business Officer to learn about UNC's plan to reach climate neutrality by 2050.)

Fee collection began during the 2004-05 school year, with the RESPC managing the funding realized from the fee, which is renewed by referendum every four years. With enrollments growing each year, the funding amounted to approximately $215,000 in academic year 2010-11. The committee is comprised of Student Congress-appointed undergraduate and graduate students as well as ex officio members of the UNC administration. The committee invites any interested students to aid in evaluating potential projects. 

Solar Power and Beyond

RESPC has been behind the creation of many renewable energy projects on campus. The first major commitment was to fund the addition of a 172-panel solar thermal array on Morrison Residence Hall. Students funded a portion of the cost and applied to the state of North Carolina for a grant to cover the remainder. When the request was rejected, students successfully lobbied legislators and others for its reconsideration and ultimately were awarded the grant funds. More recently, the committee's funding of the construction of 30 geothermal wells at the Visitor Education Center at North Carolina Botanical Gardens helped to attain a LEED platinum rating, while providing the only geothermal heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system on the campus.

Exploring Extra Efficiencies

While such large projects are vital to addressing the need for more renewable energy on campus, RESPC felt that many opportunities for saving energy remained unexplored. With the fee coming up for renewal by student vote in the spring of 2009, the committee decided to put forward the expansion of its mandate to also include energy efficiency, maintenance, and energy education projects as part of the renewal. After 83 percent of students voted to renew the student fee and approve the new mandate for another four years, the committee began examining new types of projects for consideration, such as installing light-emitting diodes (LED) and conducting speaker forums. The reasons: Energy efficiency projects allow for rapid implementation and a broader range of project proposals, while educational opportunities serve to inform the public about the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The committee selects projects for funding based on total energy savings, visibility, payback ranking, educational opportunities, direct student benefits, reasonable cost, innovative technology, and anticipated duration. The existing efficiency of UNC's district energy system makes payback periods lengthy for renewable energy projects. The RESPC criteria, which are broader than solely financial, make possible solar projects that would not otherwise be funded. The payback period for the Morrison solar array, for example, is 43 years; and the shortest payback period for a solar project considered by RESPC was 37 years. The committee members are presently studying the potential for installing a parking deck solar array that will provide hot water for several residence halls.

The expansion of the RESPC mandate to include efficiency projects has led to approval of projects with payback periods of 1.3 to 14.3 years. One of the first proposals approved under the expanded mandate was the replacement in fall 2009 of the dramatic art department's outdated stage lighting, a project that saved energy and provided modern equipment for students working with theater lighting. Other projects have included adding occupancy sensors in student laundries, replacing halogen lighting in staircases and elevators with LED, and launching a shut-the-sash campaign in laboratories that use variable air-volume fume hoods. Laboratory buildings account for 25 percent of the campus square footage and 50 percent of campus energy use. 

Think Bigger

RESPC's latest venture is the establishment of a revolving fund for energy conservation projects. The state of North Carolina's current energy budgeting process prevents UNC from establishing such a resource. So, the Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee has stepped in to do so for operations not supported by state appropriations, investing in facilities that are funded by revenues, including those from students.

The committee provides financial support without interest, and the amount to be repaid-which can sometimes be less than the original funding-is negotiated with each applicant so that worthwhile projects with a longer payback period can be affordable. Carolina Dining Services is the first recipient of a revolving fund investment. For a dining facility undergoing renovation, the committee approved and funded the incremental cost of purchasing Energy Star equipment and converting of the lighting fixtures to LED.

This project is a major milestone, raising RESPC investments above $1 million. The UNC Department of Public Safety is another early applicant for this funding, to be used to convert to LED lighting in the parking decks.

CAROLYN ELFLAND is associate vice chancellor for campus services, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.