Thursday, April 21, 2011

U of I student fees support wide range of sustainability initiatives

U of I student fees support wide range of sustainability initiatives

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In recognition of Earth Week, let me call your attention to the progress toward a greener campus being made possible by the sustainability fees University of Illinois students assess themselves. These fees, which have been enacted with overwhelming support in three separate student votes dating back to 2003, now generate roughly a million dollars a year to fund projects.

I spoke recently with Suhail Barot, a graduate student in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, to get the scoop on how those funds are being used. Barot is chair of the Student Sustainability Committee, which, in cooperation with administrators from the Office of Sustainability and U of I Facilities & Services, allocates the funds.

He emphasized that the committee aims to foster innovation by awarding funds to cutting edge projects rather than routine conservation efforts, which, he said, the University ought to take care of as a matter of course. But he also noted that many of the projects that are awarded funds would help the University make progress on the goals articulated in the Climate Action Plan it adopted last year.

Many projects made possible with student sustainability funds have already begun to pay off, either in energy dollars saved or other conservation values achieved. These range from energy-saving retrofits in the Illini Union, to the sustainable rehabilition of an underused building as rehearsal space for dance students, to the prairie plantings established near the president’s house on Florida Avenue and at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Other efforts, which have been awarded sustainability funds more recently, are just getting off the ground. Barot was very enthusiastic about the Student Weatherization Project, which will be implemented when the new school year begins in August. With guidance from Facilities & Services staff, students participating in this project will learn how to assess the performance of existing buildings, with attention to building envelope, heating and insulation, lighting, water and waste. They will then put their knowledge to use in audits of campus buildings that will help F & S set priorities and implement upgrades.

In the early stage of this program, student auditors will focus on the residential units that have been converted to house campus programs, buildings that are too small to merit attention from the campus retrocommissioning team, but where easily identified improvements could significantly decrease energy consumption.

Barot was also excited about the Committee’s support for an initiative by the School of Earth, Society and Environment to establish a Sustainability Living and Learning Center. Like other living-learning centers, this one will house students with a shared interest together in an existing facility, which will serve as a hub for them to connect with faculty and staff who share their common interest. Through the Sustainability Living and Learning Center, students will participate in the process of making the university more sustainable, and, as they move on, become leaders in the effort to address issues of sustainability in the wider world.

As you probably already know, given the difficulties that have arisen with student efforts to bring wind power to campus, renewable energy is a priority for the Student Sustainability Committee. In addition to their continuing support for a wind turbine, they are also funding the Illinois Student Solar Initiative, which aims to install photovoltaic arrays on 20 campus buildings over the next five years. Barot anticipates these arrays will generate between five and ten percent of the electricity used by the buildings involved, depending on how big they are and what they are used for.

If you are interested in learning more about projects that receive funds through the Student Sustainability Committee, you can find them online at