Thursday, April 22, 2010

U of I student efforts reach far beyond Earth Day

U of I student efforts reach far beyond Earth Day

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As we celebrate the 40th Earth Day, let me call your attention to one of the most effective ways University of Illinois students are working to promote the health of the planet. That is by assessing themselves fees to invest in initiatives that make campus more sustainable.

This spring, they approved by a three to one margin an increase that will bring the total amount of fees supporting sustainability to $14 per semester, so that they now will have roughly a million dollars a year to fund projects.

I spoke recently with Suhail Barot, who is chair of the Student Sustainability Committee, which allocates these funds, to get the story on how they are used.

Barot emphasized that even with the recently approved increase, the funds generated by student fees are nowhere near sufficient to cover the costs of routine conservation efforts for an entity as large as the university. As he put it, “[Students] can have the greatest impact when they fund pioneering projects, not things the institution should be doing anyway.”

He cited as an example the $450,000 loan students made to help upgrade lighting in the lobby at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, a project that was completed this past winter. Without the use of student funds, that upgrade would have been limited to replacement of incandescent lights with fluorescents. With the student money, the project was able to use state-of-the-art LED lighting. LED lights costs more up front, but they pay back more in energy savings over time. In the years to come, that money will be used first to repay the SSC loan, and then accrue to the university. On top of this, support from student fees enabled the Krannert Center lighting project to secure a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, substantially reducing the cost of the project for the university.

In addition to loans for extraordinary energy conservation projects, student sustainability funds have been allocated as grants for a variety of other efforts. Among them are the Sustainable Student Farm, the “green” renovation of an underutilized older building used by the Department of Dance and the School of Architecture, the prairie plantings at the School of Veterinary Medicine and the newly established Campus Bike Project. [Photo: Suhail Barot working with other student volunteers to erect greenhouse-like structures at the U of I Sustainable Student Farm last fall.]

Barot was especially enthusiastic to report there is renewed hope student clean energy funds will soon be used to accomplish the purpose for which they were originally established in 2003, and for which students have continued to fight--to bring wind energy to the UI campus. (You may remember that this effort was put on hold when the university was unable to meet its commitment to the project in the face of mounting budget concerns in late 2008.) The current plan would use a combination of funds from student sustainability fees, the university and the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to erect a one megawatt turbine, which would supply roughly 1 percent of electricity used on campus.

In these times, wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?