Colleges can lead on climate change

Good for students and good for the bottom line

AT THEIR BEST, American universities and colleges are problem-solving institutions whose work is rooted in a set of universal values. This is a unique position in our society, one that allows professors, students, and alumni to draw on diverse expertise and skills to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

Few challenges are as daunting, complex, and critical to solve as climate change. American universities are increasingly demonstrating local leadership to both directly reduce and eliminate campus greenhouse gas emissions and incubate solutions that can be replicated and scaled throughout the world. Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned to lead:  American campuses are mini-municipalities requiring real-world decisions about how to both deliver energy and responsibly manage budgets.

In climate change, universities have a rare opportunity to simultaneously lead and address what is increasingly becoming an existential business model challenge for higher education – universities’ ever-rising operating cost structure.  The answer comes not in what to do about climate change – reducing and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions is the only viable solution – but in how universities achieve that goal.

Many universities clearly understand the priority their students place in aggressively tackling both challenges. Hundreds of colleges around the nation have signed on to the President’s Climate Commitment to develop and monitor progress towards goals of achieving carbon neutrality and to take steps towards making their campuses and communities more climate-resilient. Just last year the University of California system – which has 238,000 students at 10 campuses – committed to run on 100 percent clean electricity by 2025.

These goals are both important and eminently achievable today, as the economics of wind and solar energy have become more attractive than all other forms of new generation, including natural gas.

Students and alumni of universities that have made the pledge to dramatically ramp up their use of clean energy need to understand the power of their voices and the importance of being specific in advocating for how schools achieve those goals.

Specificity from students, parents, alumni, faculty, and boards of trustees about how to move forward matters for a host of reasons, not all of them related to climate change. One is pure economics. The business model for higher education in America is as unsustainable as our dependence on fossil fuels. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost of tuition and fees for private universities in 2018-2019 was $35,676. Schools in the top 20 percent of the publication’s annual rankings often charge north of $70,000. For the past 20-plus years, tuition and fees at universities have markedly outpaced the annual US inflation rate.  (In 2018, higher-ed had a 2.8 percent annual inflation rate, outstripping national CPI inflation of 1.9 percentg, per Commonfund’s Higher Education Price Index.)

There are differing points of view as to why this is the case. But for universities to be financially sustainable well into the future, one thing is clear: They must do a far better job containing their operating costs. Energy is a critical component of that equation – and aggressive and strategic approaches to ramping up the use of clean energy and energy efficiency can play an enormously positive role.

Bentley University of Waltham, one of the top-ranked undergraduate and graduate business schools, provides an example of how controlling energy costs can improve both a university’s sustainability and its cost structure. My company, Rivermoor Energy, partnered with Bentley to make the school’s $45 million multipurpose arena that opened last year the first standalone ice arena in the country to achieve LEED Platinum certification, the highest possible energy efficiency rating by the US Green Building Council. There were numerous aspects involved with achieving this certification – after all, ice rinks are notorious energy hogs – but one key component was the installation of a 504-kilowatt rooftop solar array able to generate 40 percent of the arena’s annual electricity.

Rivermoor designed and installed the array at no cost to Bentley and is selling electricity to the university for 10 years. After 10 years, Bentley will take ownership of the solar asset, which has a useful life of at least 25 years. This means that the university will receive at least 15 years of exceptionally low-cost electricity, reducing the building’s operating costs and delivering energy savings of over $1 million over 25 years. These types of savings aren’t possible when universities pursue their sustainability goals through other means, such as solely purchasing renewable energy certificates to offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Which brings us back to why it’s so important for students and alumni to be specific about how they expect their universities to achieve their climate goals. I suggest these three steps:

  • Start with aggressive energy efficiency across campus

The first step is to take every practical, economic step possible to lower energy consumption. All existing facilities on campus should be analyzed for efficiency retrofits and new construction should aim to achieve Energy Star or LEED certification as a matter of course. Reducing energy consumption creates savings that drop to the bottom line, while making it more feasible to meet on-campus needs with clean energy.

  • Implement solar on campus
Once a university reduces its energy needs, the next step is to look to generate as much clean energy as possible on campus. Analyze what’s feasible for solar, including building-integrated, parking lot canopy, and ground-mounted solar.  And plan ahead so that any new buildings and roofs constructed or upgraded on campus are designed to be structurally ready to host solar assets. The total amount of energy that can be generated on campus will vary widely. Urban schools may have less rooftop space, while some rural campuses may be blessed with ample land suitable for ground mounted solar. It’s typically realistic for schools to meet anywhere between 5 percent and 30 percent of their energy needs on-site, with solar increasingly being complemented by energy storage.

  • Insist on additionality in clean energy procurement

The third step is to procure clean energy from offsite developments. In doing so, it’s important to insist that offsite energy come from new renewable energy assets – a concept known as additionality.  In this way, a university uses its credit rating to ensure that new clean energy assets are developed, increasing sustainability on a national scale.

Meet the Author

John Tourtelotte

Founder and managing director, Rivermoor Energy
Meet the Author

Chris Warren

Editor and writer, Focused on clean energy
Nothing about addressing climate change and escalating higher education costs is easy. That being said, we already know that very specific steps have an outsized environmental and financial impact. University leaders, students, and alumni should all focus their passion and influence to ensure that universities thoroughly and properly answer the question of how to best reduce both GHG and operational costs. In doing so, campuses can provide far more than just inspiration to address climate change. They can deliver a tangible and scalable model for GHG reduction and the transformation of the energy sector on a global level.

John Tourtelotte is the founder and managing director of Massachusetts-based Rivermoor Energy, a company that provides advanced energy solutions to utility, commercial, government, and institutional customers.  Chris Warren is an editor and writer focused on clean energy, climate change and energy policy.