Saving Universities Money through Efficiency and Renewables

What if we told you your favorite university could save millions of dollars in energy costs? And we had proof? At this summer’s Appalachian Energy Summit, the annual meeting of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Energy Leadership Challenge, staggering results were announced about reduced energy costs across the UNC system—a whopping $311 million saved through energy efficiency and renewable energy since the summit began in 2012.

The UNC system saved $103 million through avoided utility costs for 2013–14 alone, and has saved $499 million since benchmark year 2004. The UNC system is on track for energy savings of $1 billion in utility costs by 2020 and $2 billion by 2025.

The energy summit’s goal is to jumpstart a national transformative effort across higher education. From the first summit, UNC President Tom Ross has been an advocate, encouraging his administration to take seriously the opportunities available for increased energy efficiency and the addition of renewable energy resources. This was Appalachian State University’s goal when the leadership, including some of its alumni, initiated the summit. ASU also sought a partnership with Rocky Mountain Institute, which has been involved in the summit every year. RMI helped kick off the effort with significant content and facilitation, and became gradually less involved as the university system took ownership. RMI’s cofounder and chief scientist Amory Lovins still helps inspire the group each year by speaking at the event and encouraging the participants to think and act boldly.

This year David Orr, one of the top environmental educators in the country, also spoke at the event. And Robert F. Kennedy Jr. joined the group to add his own message—that it’s time for the country, and universities, to lead the way toward a better energy future. He spoke of a sense of urgency, the role of politics, and common goals that unite communities across the country.

Under President Ross’s leadership, at the first Appalachian Energy Summit in 2012, all UNC chancellors signed a commitment to the energy summit goals, which include reducing and stabilizing the university’s average annual energy expenditures, positioning the UNC system as national leaders in sustainability education, and stimulating the North Carolina economy through the support of green energy business infrastructure. This led to leadership involvement at all the campuses, as well as to many students becoming champions for energy efficiency and renewables.

In addition to the UNC campuses, another 16 universities and colleges from 7 other states were represented at the summit. Participants included chancellors, provosts, CFOs, professors, and students. There’s real interest and excitement about what can be accomplished if universities tackle their energy use and supply as seriously as Appalachian State University and other UNC schools. At UNC, the savings are reinvested in more energy-saving projects, which is creating exponential success.

During the summit, two major themes emerged:

  • New State of Energy: Charlotte and Raleigh are both energy capitals and hubs of energy innovation. In Charlotte alone there are over 260 companies tied directly to the energy sector, employing more than 27,000 workers. And the Research Triangle, which includes Raleigh, is headquarters to the second-most cleantech companies in the nation. Through their collective accomplishments, the universities and colleges in North Carolina were urged to embrace, and thrive in, their roles as leaders in this effort.
  • Collaboration: The original partnership between Appalachian State University and Rocky Mountain Institute has helped foster significant collaboration across UNC and other campus lines, sharing best practices for the common energy-savings cause. There has also been a major role for industry partners—12 attended the recent summit and work with the universities year round—as they recognize the role of higher education in our energy transformation, shaping our leaders of tomorrow and creating a culture of environmental sustainability.

As the universities and colleges head back into their academic year, the UNC Energy Summit attendees will be taking back new ideas and action items to help their schools save energy. But to stay on the trajectory of getting to a savings of $2 billion by 2025, plans are already underway for the fifth UNC Energy Summit at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, in the summer of 2016.

If you, your institution, or your company have interest in learning more, contact Ged Moody at or visit the Energy Summit website at

Ged Moody is the special assistant to the chancellor for sustainability at Appalachian State University. Marty Pickett, JD is a managing director at RMI, grew up in North Carolina, and is on the advisory board of the Center for the Environment at Catawba College, a participant in the energy summit.