Thursday, April 19, 2012

Student fees continue to promote environmental progress at the U of I

Student fees continue to promote environmental progress at the U of I

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When you think about Earth Day, you’re likely to picture crowds outdoors—people carrying signs, listening to speeches and cleaning up parks. And all of those things have been taking place this week at the University of Illinois. But over the past decade, students here have greatly expanded the definition of “environmental activism,” and changed the way the university operates in the process. What’s more, their most effective efforts are often their least dramatic.

[Photo: Monica Venhuizen/Illini Union Marketing Department
Left to right, top: Ronald Revord, Marcus Ricci, Suharsh Sivakumar
Left to right, bottom: Kathryn Kinley (Treasurer), Amy Allen (Vice-Chair), Marika Nell (Chair), Emily Cross (Secretary)

Case in point, making large sums of money available for efforts to reduce the institution’s environmental footprint through a set of “sustainability fees” they pay each semester. 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 checked in recently with Marika Nell, who is an undergraduate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and chair of the Student Sustainability Committee, to talk about how money generated by sustainability fees has been allocated this academic year.

She pointed out that the greatest sum—$500,000—had been committed to the Campus Revolving Loan Fund. This fund, which was established with a matching contribution from the Office of the Chancellor, and a larger one from the Office of the President, makes loans for projects that pay for themselves in savings over time. It is a self-sustaining, energy saving machine, one of the largest of its kind in the U.S.

Is there any act of conservation less dramatic than swapping one type of fluorescent light for another, more efficient one? How about installing occupancy sensors so that the lights turn off after people leave a room? Thanks to the Campus Revolving Loan Fund, 54 campus buildings or units will benefit from such upgrades in the months to come.

It’s the cumulative impact of upgrades like these that has enabled the University to reduce its overall energy consumption by 19% in the past four years. In doing so, it has exceeded the ambitious goal established by the Illinois Climate Action Plan it adopted in 2010.

Nell also highlighted two other large-scale efforts that the Student Sustainability Committee has funded this year. One is the Campus Composting Project, which, when it’s up and running, will take in all of the food waste from six campus dining halls, in combination with some of the landscape waste from campus grounds. Nell pointed out that composting food waste keeps it from taking up valuable space in a landfill, and saves the University the cost of putting it there. Composting will also produce rich fertilizer, which will be used on the Student Sustainable Farm and replace some of the less earth-friendly products campus groundskeepers currently buy.

Establishment of a large-scale food composting facility will also enable the University to keep the commitment it made to do so in the Climate Action Plan.

The other large-scale project being supported with student funds that Nell called attention to is the installation of retractable shade curtains in greenhouses at the Plant Sciences Laboratory. They’re no sexier than energy-efficient light bulbs or occupancy sensors, but where they have already been installed they have reduced energy use by 33% and cut water use by nearly the same amount.

None of this is to downplay the Earth Week activities that will continue on campus through Sunday. You can find a schedule through the U of I Office of Sustainability at