Thursday, February 05, 2009

Committee invests student funds to promote sustainability

Committee invests student funds to promote sustainability

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As President Obama works to change the course of national environmental policy and congress wrangles over economic stimulus measures, the idea of investing in green technology is hotter than ever. But as a nation, we’re really playing catch up.

Students at the University of Illinois have been investing in projects to generate pollution-free energy and reduce campus energy consumption since they voted to adopt a $2.00-per-semester fee nearly six years ago. With the addition of an even greater $5.00 per semester fee, approved by an overwhelming majority in a campus-wide vote in Spring 2007, they now have a fund that generates about $550,000 annually.

Money from that fund is dispersed through grants that are allocated by the Student Sustainability Committee, which is composed of 10 students and 10 members from the U of I faculty and staff appointed by the vice-chancellor for student affairs. The Student Sustainability Committee solicits proposals from members of the campus community, reviews them, and makes recommendations about which proposals to fund. The committee’s decisions are subject to approval by campus administrators from the Office of Sustainability and U of I Facilities and Services.

Between 2003 and 2008 the Student Sustainability Committee made grants totaling nearly $816,000, most of which were in the $10,000-$50,000 range. Many of these focused on prospects for energy conservation. One grant, for example, supported an audit of energy use in the Illini Union that identified opportunities for upgrading lighting that will save an estimated $30,000 a year in electricity costs, and money from the same grant will also be used to help make those upgrades.

Other grants have helped to promote alternative fuels, including an effort to convert waste vegetable oil from campus dining halls into biodiesel. It is anticipated that this effort, sponsored by the UI student chapter of Engineers Without Borders, will ultimately produce 8,000 gallons of fuel per academic year for use in campus vehicles.

More significant than any of these others are the two much larger scale projects the Student Sustainability Committee has funded for generating electricity on campus. [Photo: Solar panels atop the roof on the auditorium of the U of I's Business Instructional Facility.] It contributed half of the $373,000 cost of the solar panels that grace the greenest building on campus, the new Business Instructional Facility at Sixth and Gregory. These panels are expected to generate up to seven percent of the building’s annual electricity use.

The committee has also invested $300,000 in the project to bring wind power to campus, a long-running effort that embodies myriad opportunities for teaching and research. This effort ran into a substantial obstacle last December, when the university was unable to meet its financial commitment to the project in the face of mounting of budget concerns. But members of the Student Sustainability Committee, in cooperation with other faculty, staff, and administrators, continue to pursue the means to make the campus wind farm a reality. Most importantly, they have succeeded in retaining support from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, they have negotiated a substantial discount with General Electric on the purchase price of a wind turbine, and they have voted to increase the contribution of student funds for the project to $500,000.

Such determination and ingenuity will be needed to keep long term priorities on the table in these uncertain times.