Imagine a University

"ImagineJust as Rocky Mountain Institute Chief Scientist Amory Lovins has asked us over the years to “Imagine a World”, he has now charged ~22 public and private universities and colleges in the State of North Carolina to “Imagine a University,” a small and complex world in its own right.

This week in Boone, North Carolina, participants at the Appalachian Energy Summit began thinking about how they can Reinvent Fire on their campus and throughout the state.

Reinventing Fire, RMI’s vision and roadmap to a 2050 U.S. economy powered by efficiency and renewables, is just as compelling for campus leaders as it is for business leaders. College campuses provide a great test environment to apply energy-saving solutions across the energy-using facets of society. Campuses have residential and commercial buildings, hospitals, recreation areas, transportation fleets, industrial facilities, and—in some cases—on-site electricity generation. People live, work, play, eat, and sleep on campuses. Campus buildings also tend to be fairly energy intensive, especially the hospitals and laboratories that you see at large research universities.

According to Lovins, the first step in developing a sustainable campus energy plan is to fundamentally ask how they could offer students and faculty better value, using less energy. Specially, he called on summit participants to “imagine a university”

  • That makes students, employees, and community members happier and healthier
  • Where campuses are used as part of the education curriculum, and smart, climate-responsive buildings teach students about integrative design and new technologies
  • Where facilities managers are seen not as overhead to be minimized but as profit centers to be maximized

Participants expanded on this vision throughout the day. They imagined universities that:

  • Have energy courses as part of the general education requirements
  • Can participate in purchase power agreements with energy developers and are able to negotiate with utilities
  • Have non-siloed departments that work together to create and implement an energy plan and strategy
  • Have a common clean energy plan for all of the campuses in the state
  • Have aggressive metering and measuring for each building on campus
  • Reward students and staff for not having cars on campus
  • Have coordinated land use and transportation planning with local municipalities
  • Successfully train students to be the nation’s next energy leaders
  • Have revolving loan funds to reinvest energy savings back into the school

Universities are huge economic drivers in every state and the solutions discussed at the summit have implications far beyond the campuses themselves. In North Carolina, for example, the 17 campuses that make up the public university system spend $226 million per year on energy—just about $1000 per student per year. Making efficiency improvements on campus buildings and vehicle fleets not only helps hedge against rising tuition costs, can yield important savings for the cash-strapped taxpayers of the state of North Carolina.

That said, while $226 million dollars is a big chunk of change, it is only a drop in the bucket compared to the UNC system’s overall annual spending. In fact, it’s only 2.8 percent of the total annual expenditures of the system. By one report, the state schools spend more money on software for faculty and students.

But there is value beyond the cost savings for universities. Beyond the obvious business reasons, universities with comprehensive strategies can benefit from better student recruitment and retention, cohesive and comprehensive curricula, well-trained, educated staff; beneficial partnerships with other schools, and fruitful partnerships with private organizations, just to name a few.

Universities are already creating the next generation of energy thinkers and workers, so the UNC system’s effort to coordinate across the state is a huge step forward. As a native to North Carolina and alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill, I am excited by the potential for a system-wide sustainability plan to lead cost savings at the campus level, and larger—arguably more beneficial—non-economic benefits for the state.

Highlighted Resources


Energy Confessions of an Undergrad



Tips for Campus Sustainability


Imagine a World (Video)