Tips For Campus Sustainability Planning

Today kicks off the Appalachian Energy Summit, where campus leaders from the University of North Carolina system will work with RMI facilitators to explore ways to chip away at their $226 million annual energy bill, and work toward carbon neutrality by 2050.

This is not the first time RMI has worked with college campuses. In 2008-2009, RMI staff visited twelve campuses to more fully understand specific campus climate initiatives and challenges, engage in workshops, and offer campus officials informal feedback. The effort resulted in a practical guide for anyone working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a college or university. It lays out eight guiding principles that can guide AES participants through three days of discussion and engagement.

Outstanding practices for effective climate action on college campuses
1. Employ whole-system thinking to develop integrative designs

When people commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they want action on their campus, and soon. Climate programs, strategies, plans, and committees quickly develop lists of exciting projects, programs, and events. As campus leaders and their colleagues develop and expand lists and take action, it’s critically important to understand that success will come not only from such lists, but also from a different way of thinking about buildings, utilities, perceptions, institutional structures, and all the other components of the system that comprises energy and a campus. That different way is called whole-system thinking. It can help determine not only what should be on the list and how to effectively implement projects, but also the important interrelationships among them.

2. Develop an understanding of campus technical systems

For climate-protection advocates without a technical background, the complex details of, for example, a campus energy system or the physics of the buildings it supplies can seem either beyond comprehension or too detailed and mundane. However, without the help and enthusiasm of campus experts in these systems (e.g., a facilities management team), leaders will have little hope of achieving aggressive climate goals. Non-technical staff can create a strong foundation for the hard work and collaboration needed to make progress toward a climate commitment by building good relationships with technical staff, encouraging them to teach interested sustainability advocates on campus, and connecting them with a non-technical version of campus sustainability culture.

3. Identify non-climate benefits and seek wider support

Many aspects of the design, maintenance, and renovation of buildings that are required to achieve better comfort, aesthetics, and performance are also associated with reducing fossil-fuel use. For example, students and employees who learn and work in daylit spaces perform better, retain more positive moods, and are generally healthier than their counterparts in buildings that depend on conventional, electric light. In the earlier stages of an effort to secure wide campus support for green-building design or renovation, one should carefully consider the widest range of benefits that may be achieved by such design and collaborate with people interested in those benefits.

4. Adopt an integrated framework for prioritization and decision-making

There will probably never be enough time, money or information to be certain that the best solutions are being implemented on a campus. Therefore, rather than aiming for perfection (which can often result in organizational paralysis), prioritize and implement the best possible solutions that time, money and information allow, and base priorities on an integrated framework. Developing prioritization criteria can also be an important part of the campus master-planning process. Institutions that have incorporated sustainability goals into the master plan are often better prepared to efficiently navigate student demands and resource demands in an increasingly energy-conscious, and capitally constrained environment.

5. Create a centralized repository of climate-project options

To achieve a cost-effective, well organized, and successful climate mitigation program, a campus needs systematic analysis and prioritization of your campus-wide options for reducing carbon emissions. A project manager or team can develop the central options repository by creating a standardized format for information, distributing it to all departments, then collecting the standardized information for each potential project. This will enable better cross-institutional communication and teamwork among climate commitment managers.

6. Choose appropriate methods of economic analysis

In order to arrive at and implement a program over the long term, it is critical to choose a method of economic analysis that goes beyond simple payback calculations based only on incremental first costs and resultant annual energy savings. Life cycle cost analysis methods, which take into consideration costs and benefits associated with projects and measures over the life of the project ought to be used when determining the comparative viability of projects and measures to save energy.

7. Assess projects as packages, not as individual projects

To accurately count all costs and benefits and to avoid counting costs or benefits more than once, assess projects as packages instead of considering individual measures in isolation. Projects that “tunnel through the cost barrier” are often combinations of energy-efficiency measures, implemented in the right order to get an optimal mix of efficiency ingredients, which then results in downsizing, or in some cases, eliminating the need for expensive mechanical systems. In contrast, assessing one energy efficiency measure at a time often eliminates opportunities for financial synergy.

8. Identify projects with attractive return on investment

Some people will insist that energy-saving projects on college campuses are too costly for an institution whose mission is education, not energy. Surprisingly, big savings can be easier and cheaper to achieve than small ones if the right combination of ingredients is combined in the right way, if an organization is structured to support this process, and if leadership does not allow its mental models to get in the way of attractive solutions.