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The Sustainability Connection

As institutions work to reduce their carbon footprint, many have looped campus sustainability committees into the project review and approval process.

By Karla Hignite

In addition to financial savings resulting from green revolving fund projects, colleges and universities are making significant progress with reducing their carbon footprint, transitioning to clean and renewable energy, and conserving water resources. While the technical and financial nature of energy efficiency projects most often requires the expertise of finance and facilities staff and building engineers, many institutions have looped campus sustainability committees into the project review and approval process.

Projects at Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Ga., are vetted annually by the revolving fund committee, comprising faculty, staff, and students. John Hegman, vice president for business and finance, co-chairs the committee along with the college's director of sustainability. While projects are ranked based on simple payback period, operational urgency, and the potential for reducing carbon emissions, other considerations include health and community impact, and the potential for educational opportunity and campus community visibility, says Hegman. In addition to reinforcing an institution's commitment to sustainability, Hegman believes that revolving funds and the projects they support can serve as an example of how institutions are tackling maintenance needs and generating perpetual savings for the institution—a positive message for donors.

How the Committees Work

During the initial buildup of the California-based University of La Verne's fund, facilities staff have been identifying projects based on greatest ROI and environmental impact in coordination with the university's Sustainable Campus Consortium, composed of student, faculty, and staff representatives. "Going forward, future projects will be evaluated and prioritized using a rubric developed by the consortium," says Clive Houston-Brown, La Verne's vice president for facilities and technology and chief information officer, and consortium co-chair.

La Verne's initial 12 projects alone have abated emissions by 109 metric tons of CO2-equivalent, reduced electrical consumption by more than 250,000 kWh hours, and reduced water use by 2.5 million gallons. The university will spend another $250,000 on energy and water projects during the next two years. While La Verne aims for projects with no more than a 10-year payback, leaders will make exceptions for water projects, for which the environmental ROI for La Verne is huge, notes Houston-Brown. For the past several years, the university has been under a voluntary city water-use restriction, but in April 2015 California Governor Jerry Brown signed a statewide 25 percent mandatory water-use reduction for businesses and residences.

From the start, Denison's green revolving fund has hinged on close collaboration among finance, facilities, and sustainability staff, and the fund plays a significant role in the university's goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, says Jeremy King, campus sustainability coordinator. All project proposals are presented to Denison's campus sustainability committee prior to development to discuss anticipated benefits and payback.

While the committee is advisory in nature, the process provides an important opportunity to educate committee members about the projects and to establish a level of trust for the decisions of facilities staff, notes King. Denison's goal to invest approximately $500,000 in energy improvements each year includes $450,000 in projects generated from facilities staff and another $50,000 earmarked for projects suggested by the campus community.

John Onderdonk, director of sustainability programs for the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif., suggests that Caltech's green revolving fund is not only a creative way to access capital, but is also an innovative approach to embedding energy conservation into the organization. According to the university's 2013 sustainability report, since 2009, the Caltech Energy Conservation Investment Program (CECIP) has financed $15 million in energy conservation investments, with an average ROI of 26 percent. More than $5 million has been returned to the fund in avoided utility costs, with projects attracting $3 million in utility rebates.

Overall, the program has helped reduce heating hot water by 39 percent, chilled water by 24 percent, and the overall campus energy intensity by 10 percent. Absent CECIP-funded investments in energy efficiency projects, the institute would be using a projected 18 GWH more of electricity annually. "We've already seen projects reduce the institute's energy bills by millions of dollars," says Onderdonk. "We estimate that at our projected peak of energy efficiency projects, CECIP will ultimately finance more than $30 million in energy conservation measures."

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.


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