Solar panels adorning the tops of Harvard buildings. A bright, towering wind turbine on the St. Olaf campus. Libraries and dormitories chock full of blue recycling options and even composting bins inside the dining halls, at the University of Washington.
Campus sustainability has come into its own over the last decade, with renewable energy, tray-less dining, and sustainability director jobs popping up at campuses across the country. While many colleges and universities can implement some or all of these programs to reduce their carbon footprint, many projects are done piecemeal, without a regular source of funding or the institutional support to make it the first step in a larger commitment.
Being a sustainable campus can be so much more than just a green garden or showcase project. Sustainability projects can often reduce the overall operating costs for the campus, saving energy and money, keeping tuition low. But high upfront costs can be a barrier to administrators experiencing steep budget cuts and rising energy costs.
One way for any college or university to achieve these results is through a sustainability financing mechanism called the Green Revolving Fund.
On the main stage at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s national conference in Pittsburgh, PA, the Billion Dollar Green Challenge will be launched in front of the largest gathering, to date, on sustainability in higher education. The Challenge is inviting colleges to establish green revolving funds to invest in significant energy efficiency upgrades on campus.
At the time of the launch, 32 institutions have joined the Challenge’s Founding Circle. Founding Circle participants range in size from large institutions such as Arizona State, Harvard and Stanford, to small and innovative institutions such as Northland College, Green Mountain College and Unity College.
Green revolving fund projects are diverse and versatile, and can be easily adapted to a school’s priorities. Have an active student body? Consider operating a student-driven fund, like at Oberlin College’s EDGE Fund, where students work with faculty and staff to initiative sustainability projects. Want to retrofit your campus buildings? Take a page from the University of Pennsylvania’s Energy Reduction Fund, which reduces energy through building upgrades.
Existing green revolving funds prove that sustainability efforts can be profitable and even fund larger and more ambitious projects, as they have an average return on investment of 32 percent annually.
Clearly, the benefits of joining the Challenge and operating a green revolving fund are numerous. They are a bright spot in a rocky economy, helping to create green jobs in campus communities while substantially reducing operating costs. The Challenge is a broad network of like-minded institutions focused on improving campus sustainability throughout their operations.
For participating institutions, it will be a best practice forum for what kinds of projects have proven successful, what programs have had difficulties, and what programs you should consider on your own campus, based on real-life examples.
As energy prices rise and concerns about resource scarcity increase, it is a risky venture to not invest in environmental initiatives on campus. By joining the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, institutions can both save energy and grow money.
Mark Orlowski is the Executive Director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI) and Emily Flynn is Manager of Special Projects at SEI.