Solar panels on the V. Randall Turpin Building are just one of many sustainability measures that earned the University of Utah a spot on the Princeton Review's list of green colleges and universities. (Photo by Office of Sustainability, University of Utah)
To all the factors students and parents use to evaluate colleges—academics, sports, financial aid, even fire safety—you can now add sustainability, and place the University of Utah (UU) in Salt Lake City among the leaders.
On its January 2012 list of Top 20 Colleges and Universities for green power purchases, the EPA Green Power Partnership ranked UU third nationally, just behind University of Pennsylvania and Carnegie Mellon University. In the 2011-2012 Green Power Challenge, the university leads the second-place PAC-12 Conference, purchasing more than 98 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of wind power.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that UU green power purchases are equivalent to more than 36 percent of its energy use. “Green power purchases allow us to reduce our footprint even further in a cost effective way,” said UU sustainability coordinator Jen Colby. “It’s an honor to be in the top five nationally.”
Logistics of the purchase
UU is lowering its carbon footprint by buying renewable energy certificates (RECs) from wind farms through REC marketer 3Degrees. “We looked at all the options and wind power was the most affordable,” explained Ashley Patterson, outreach coordinator for UU’s Office of Sustainability.
The university also subscribes to Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky Renewable Energy program at the “visionary” level.
The purchase of Green-e certified RECs is funded by fees and donations the university collects through various renewable energy campaigns. UU retains formal ownership of the offsets, making the donations from non-students tax deductible.
Students started it
As often happens on college campuses across the country, students set UU on the path toward renewable energy leadership. In 2005, the Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU) launched a campaign to create a small student fee to pay for clean energy purchases. All of UU’s 32,000 students now pay $1.00 “green” fee to support the purchase of renewable energy.
About a year after the ASUU renewable energy campaign started, Dr. Chris Hill of the biochemistry department started a similar campaign for the staff and faculty. Currently, that renewable energy campaign has about 200 donors. Other UU departments, programs and annual events followed with their own campaigns to support renewable energy and achieve climate neutrality. There are now more than 40 renewable energy campaigns on campus that accept voluntary contributions from faculty, staff, alumni and the public.
The large scale of the program helps keep the price of the RECs down to $3 per megawatt-hour (MWh). The typical U.S. household with the average annual use of 10 MWh, can offset its entire electricity consumption for $30 premium per year—less than a 5-percent increase in a typical Utah residential electricity bill.
Other sustainability measures
Of course, no form of energy is so affordable that a large institution can afford to waste it, which is why UU has an Energy Management Office. The office targets three areas to reduce energy consumption: building performance, energy conservation and behavioral initiatives.
Tracking utility data, re-commissioning building systems, implementing retrofit projects and leveraging utility incentives to fund improvements are all part of UU’s energy management strategy. Efficiency upgrade projects include retrofitting T12 lighting, adding automated lighting controls, implementing IT software and upgrading HVAC ducting to improve distribution. The energy savings from these improvements accumulated between July 2007 and January 2012 total 183,931,251 kilowatt-hours, 593,795 decatherms of natural gas, 35,392,000 pounds of steam and 1,363,531 million British thermal units.
Campus-wide energy-efficiency projects are an important source of energy savings, too. The Energy Office has and assisted with grant applications for photovoltaic installations. Providing design assistance to build efficiency into new facilities, and working with power providers to obtain rebates and incentives are also part of UU’s energy conservation strategy.
Efficient buildings and systems work best if occupants understand and use the features, so the Energy Office also has an outreach program to build energy awareness. Facilities managers receive training in the proper operation of system controls. A behavioral specialist is available to consult with “green teams” around campus to educate students, faculty and staff about simple energy-saving habits and measures.
As important as energy use is, UU recognizes that there is still more to creating a “green” university. The UU Office of Sustainability also supports recycling efforts, water conservation, local and organic dining options, low-impact transportation and more. Students can also enroll in sustainability-related courses and programs, and explore new ideas and technologies at the Sustainability Research Center. The Student Campus Initiative Fund, another student-led initiative, collects a $2.50-per-semester student fee to fund grants for students to put their energy-efficiency and conservation ideas into action on campus and in the community.
Preparing for the future
These efforts, along with the renewable energy purchase, have landed UU on the Princeton Review’s list of 311 Green Colleges for three years in a row. The national guide is published to aid prospective students in choosing a college.
The reason the Princeton Review includes sustainability in its evaluation goes beyond mere idealism. Students understand that renewable energy offers a career path, as demonstrated by the two undergraduates who started the wind power campaign. One is now working for Utah Clean Energy, and the other is associate director of the California Geothermal Energy Collaborative at the UC Davis Energy Institute.
A great basketball team may still attract more students than a strong “green” program, but students want to prepare for the future, too. With its forward-looking sustainability program and renewable energy purchases, University of Utah is schooling the competition in that game.