Energy Confessions of an Undergrad

"RossLife as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor is a whirlwind of midterms, finals, and the fleeting moments in between.

During brief breaks from the library, students somehow find time to participate in clubs, go out with friends, play sports, and otherwise create lasting memories of our college experience. However, one of the few things we fail to think about (besides doing our laundry) is our school’s energy use.

I would love to write that all students at U of M read our annual sustainability report, consider our school’s energy use on a daily basis, and are aware of all of the environmental practices taking place on our campus. Unfortunately, based on my college experience, that is just not the case.

To be fair, there is a distinction between students who are simply aware of whether our university is or isn’t environmentally responsible, and those who actively respond to our school’s efficiency initiatives, or “live green” on a day-to-day basis.

I am keenly aware of the sustainable mindset of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business—my home school—because the building itself provides a daily visual reminder. The school’s recycled brick exterior and living roof installations were built in accordance with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, and are part of what attracted me to the school.

But, prior to researching for this blog, I had never heard of Michigan’s “Campus Sustainability Integrated Assessment Goals.” Among these targets, Michigan is striving to reduce waste tonnage diverted to disposal facilities by 40 percent, and purchase 20 percent of U of M food in accordance with the school’s Sustainable Food Purchasing Guidelines by 2025.

As a student who attempts to reduce my footprint whenever possible, these goals are appealing, and I have a strong sense that other students feel the same. Yet according to a poll I sent to fellow Michigan students, 56 percent said that they were interested in being aware of our campus’ sustainability measures, but they did not know where to look for such information. Out of the respondents, only 8 percent said that they had no interest in learning more about these measures.

My takeaway: It’s not that students don’t care—they just don’t know. There’s a huge opportunity for college campuses that have made a commitment to sustainability to make their environmental goals and initiatives clear and accessible to students. If your university publicized its energy goals beyond, say, the annual report, do you think more students might be inspired to do their part?

The university could more effectively spread news of its environmental initiatives through using some of the suggestions that come from RMI’s work on the campus climate initiative, such as pursuing a media strategy or using Facebook to encourage information sharing and student engagement on important energy issues. Another potential solution is to keep students informed on the scale and cost of campus energy use.

According to the Michigan Office of Budget and Planning, the Ann Arbor campus budgeted over $181 million for utilities expenses for fiscal year 2010-11, while the annual tuition for a first-year non-resident student was $36,001.38. This means that the Ann Arbor campus budgeted approximately 5,041 non-resident students’ worth of tuition to pay for utilities alone. However, when I asked my peers how many non-resident undergraduates they think it takes to cover the utilities budget, 69.2 percent of them believed the figure was 3,050 or fewer students.

 If more students simply knew the extent to which energy use costs our school, I have a feeling that we (with the wholehearted encouragement of our parents) would be energized to do our part in reducing this expense by being more energy efficient—whether through our own personal habits, or by encouraging university leadership to pursue aggressive efficiency measures across campus buildings, sports facilities, and labs.

In light of these challenges, it is refreshing to know that other campuses around the country are seizing the opportunity to lower energy costs and increase sustainability awareness. At the Appalachian Energy Summit this week, which RMI is helping facilitate, increasing student awareness and engagement was discussed as a key goal. According to William Chameides, dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and a speaker at the summit, the real impact of a campus being net zero is not seen in the global carbon footprint, but in the culture shift toward innovation that is a necessary part of the process and a campus culture.

I’d like to see U of M seize our huge energy opportunity by activating interested students, encouraging them to advance beyond the most basic sustainable initiatives (such as compost bins), and inspiring them to be a fundamental part of a campus-wide solution. In other words, the school cannot rely solely on the installation of sustainability measures and the accompanying administrative rhetoric to improve our campus’s energy efficiency. It’s time for Michigan undergraduates, and college students everywhere, to seize this opportunity and be a catalyst of this change.

Highlighted Resources


Tips for Campus Sustainability Planning



Accelerating Campus Climate Initiatives